Biwat (Mundugumor) Male Ancestor Spirit Figure from a Sacred Flute, wusear, Papua New Guinea
- Tridacna Shell, cowrie shell, cone shell, pearl oyster, cassowary feathers
- Height without feathers: 19 1/8 in (48.6 cm)
Reportedly Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde zu Berlin (today: Museum für Völkerkunde, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz), Berlin
Reportedly Louis Lemaire, Amsterdam
Arthur Speyer, Berlin, before 1914
Historisches Museum, Bern, acquired from the above
Serge Brignioni, Bern, acquired from the above before 1954
Patricia Whitofs, London, acquired from the above
Marcia and John Friede, New York, acquired from the above
Historisches Museum, Bern, before 1954
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 15, 2005 - February 14, 2010
Herbert Tischner (text) and Friedrich Hewicker (photographs), L'Art de l'Océanie, Paris, 1954, pl. 23
Herbert Tischner (text) and Friedrich Hewicker (photographs), Oceanic Art, New York, 1954, pl. 23
Alfred Buehler, Ethnographische Kostbarkeiten: Aus den Sammlungen von Alfred Bühler im Basler Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel, 1970, fig. 1, B.20
John A. Friede et al. (ed.), New Guinea Art. Masterpieces from the Jolika Collection of Marcia and John Friede, San Francisco, 2005, pp. 166-167 (vol. 1), 37 and 104 (vol. 2), cat. 138
One of the most iconic genres of Melanesian art, wusear are male spirit figures that were placed on top of the sacred flutes of the Biwat people on the shores of the middle Yuat River, a side-arm of the Lower Sepik River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. With the stick-shaped bottom end they were vertically inserted into the bamboo flute. While wusar were often called "flute stoppers" by Western scholars, this expression is misleading insofar as it reduces these effigies to a decorative function. In fact, however, wusear were effigies who "spoke" through the flute. It is more appropriate to interpret the flute as part of the wusear than vice versa.
Wusear were associated with the powerful crocodile spirit (asin) and had supernatural aura. However, as many examples contain human hair and sometimes even human teeth (such as the offered lot which has two molars hanging from each end of the curved boar-tusk nosestick) there also seem to be connections with clan ancestry. They were sacred property of a clan, they were honored and received food offerings.
Dirk Smidt (in Kooten and Heuvel 1990: 245-246, text to cat. 93), notes: "The Biwat (who became widely known through Margaret Mead as the Mundugumor, the name given to them by neighbouring groups) have developed strong sculptural shapes, like the gable finials with sculptured human figures in knee-elbow posture [the two most famous examples of this type are in the de Young Museum, San Francisco, and in the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva], masks, and [antropomorphic, like the offered lot] flute stoppers. These last-named are thought by the Biwat themselves to be their most important, and sacred objects. They were the crowns of the long bamboo flutes (aiyang), and their voices were heard when the flutes were blown, after the stoppers were removed. Their social, ceremonial, and religious significance was tremendous. They were considered to be 'the children of the mother crocodile spirit' (asin), a powerful being, that performed creative deeds in primeval times, and let the initiates be reborn by symbollically swallowing and throwing out the candidates. Via scarification tattooing, in the past performed with animal teeth [...], the initiates were 'bitten' by the crocodile, by which procedure the strength of the crocodile was transmitted to the initiates. [...]
"Seeing the sacred flutes was a highlight of the initiation and made a deep impression. An uncle (mother's brother) of a boy undergoing initiation, would show his nephew the sacred flutes and hand them to the boy's father, at whose death they would be inherited by the boy. In turn, the father would make new flutes for his sister's husband to be shown at the initiation of the latter's son.
"A remarkable fact is that the girls were allowed to see the flutes as well. Their involvement was understandable. The symbolic value of such a flute was nearly as high as the value of a woman. A man who wanted to marry but had no sister to compensate the group who gave the bride, could only satisfy the family of the bride, after he had resorted to kidnapping his beloved, by offering a sacred flute, indeed symbolic of the strength and riches of his own group."
According to Friede (2005: 103-104, text to cat. 137), the offered lot was collected together with five other wusear figures "before 1900 and [all together] may have entered the Königliche Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, as a group. Personally, I believe they were collected together on the von Schleinitz Expedition in 1886 or by German traders around that time. Subsequently, they are said to have been acquired by Louis Lemaire in Amsterdam and, after that, by Arthur Speyer in Germany. They were in Speyer's possession before 1914. The two in our collection [the offered lot and the one now owned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum, San Francisco, Gift of Marcia and John Friede, 2001.62.6, published in Friede 2005: cat. 137] later entered the Serge Brignioni Collection, Bern. All of the original six are superb sculptures and quite distinct from each other. They are among the best of the powerful and original creations of the Biwat people. Two of the original group of flute figures are in the Museum der Kulturen, Basel [... They were recently shown in the exhibition Visual Encounters at The Beyeler Foundation, Basel, see Wick 2009: XV, figs. 8 and 9]. The others were retained by the Speyer heirs until recently [... and] are now in private collections in Germany and in the United States."