In 1971, the Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired three figures originating from the Yuat River region from a private collector in Sydney. It is thought that the cousin of the owner, who worked as a teacher in New Guinea in the early 1950s, collected the figures during this time, possibly during a trip to the Sepik region, and brought them back to Australia in 1956.
The writing of Father Karl Laumann, a Roman Catholic priest based at Kanduanum Mission station on the banks of the Sepik River during the 1930s–50s, provides the most comprehensive description of comparable figures. Laumann drew on his broad knowledge of the geography and cultures of the area to describe a group of wooden carvings from Maramba village in the lower Yuat area, anthropomorphic in form, which represented river or bush spirits and brought success in hunting and war.
The three wooden carvings, which Laumann described as representing a family, include a large male figure named Mündábalä, a smaller headless female figure described as his wife Pandi, and a small figure, a male child known as Andi.
According to myth, long ago a Maramba man named Agroabar was kidnapped by bush spirits known as Yambárengar, but was set free by one of the spirit’s wives. Mündábalä was created by a woodcarver for Agroabar in the likeness of the spirits and would be called upon for a successful hunt. The child known as Andi is said to have been created for, and named by, Agroabar but nothing is known about its purpose. The figure named Pandi was carved by Woalam in the image of his wife, a Maramba woman murdered by an enemy group. Woalam placed the head of his dead wife on the wooden figure, which was later reunited and buried with her body at a funeral ceremony. The headless figure later became known as Pandi, the wife of Mündábalä.
The works from the AGNSW collection are part of a very small group of other known 'Andi' figures, which share certain visual traits. Carved from one piece of wood, both figures clasp an object in front of their body with arms bent upwards towards their chin. This unknown object resembles adornments on flute ornaments from the Lower Yuat and Sawos regions.
Laumann describes Andi as male, however one of the figures has noticeably female genitalia. The heads have broad noses with drilled septum, heavy brows with close-set rounded eyes, clearly defined pierced ears, and pronounced lips. A lug has been carved between the shoulder blades of one figure and on the back of the head of the other, possibly for suspension inside a family house. Incised zigzag and circular designs are carved across the shoulders, buttocks and lower hip on the male figure, representing the keloid scars of initiation marks, and delicate woven bands girdle his ankles. His elbow and knee joints are finely delineated and the elongated head tapers towards the chin-object, continuing the length of the body to the male organ. The female figure has four distinct parallel bands carved across her shoulders, and her plump hips and rounded belly are tenderly rendered.
Natalie Wilson, entry in Crispin Howarth (ed), 'Myth and magic: art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea', National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015
Female figure (arms at sides)
circa 20th century
wood, woven rattan cane
37.0 cm height
Not on display