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The human form

Ritual objects suggesting the human form were integral elements of highlands sorcery and ceremonial practice. Woven yupini figures, which represent a legendary tribal founder, were used in Enga and Ipili fertility rituals. Several eastern highlands cultures sculpted figures from fibrous tree-fern trunks. These were incorporated in house ridgepoles or placed in gardens to ward off enemies, trap malevolent spirits and keep pigs from destroying crops.

Figural forms were often adorned in the bilas (body decoration) of the peoples who created them. The kund gale effigy on display is dressed in festive adornments worn by men at Wahgi pig festivals. The wooden female figure from Pangia in the southern highlands wears the traditional bilas of a young unmarried woman.

Carving the human form in wood was unusual in the highlands until recent times, and contact with other New Guinea cultures at the Goroka and Mount Hagen shows may have popularised the practice.

Focus work

Click the link to view the work in the collection, including an image and more information

Wahgi people

Kund gale (effigy) mid 1900s

Constructed from an astounding array of natural and manufactured materials, this kund gale (effigy) is dressed in the ceremonial attire of a Wahgi male dancer, including the konzap kine, a traditional apron decorated with pearlshells. Made by men, the kund gale is used only during the major pig festival called konggar – an extended ritual cycle held once in a generation. During the final days of celebration the correct bilas (body decoration) are worn, including bird of paradise plumes. On the day before the climax of the festival, when hundreds of pigs are killed and pork distributed to family and exchange partners, men perform ‘trampling the fence’. This involves rushing onto the ceremonial ground in a display of martial force with one dancer carrying the kund gale mounted on a pole above his head.

Issue for consideration

Consider the challenges of creating a three-dimensional work of art. How do you make it balance? How do you ensure it looks effective from all angles? Make your own 3D figure or sculpture. Write an account of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them or had to change your technique and original design as a result.

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail