Although few examples still stand today, in former times the villages of the Iatmul people typically had three men’s ceremonial houses set on the village dancing ground. At either end of each one, the Iatmul constructed a raised earthen mound, which was planted with totemic trees and plants. In some rituals, the ceremonial house was likened metaphorically to a canoe floating on the river, which was “moored” by tying it to a tree growing on the mound. In some instances, the mound was enclosed by a wood fence whose components included post-like wood images portraying the brightly painted heads or busts of ancestral spirits. The ancestor on view here is wearing elements of ceremonial finery. The geometric patterns on the head resemble the face-paint patterns worn by the Iatmul on important occasions. The chest is adorned with a series of crescent-shaped elements representing pearl-shell ornaments.
[Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, until 1952]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1952, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1969; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1969–1978
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 173.
The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 133.
Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 84.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, no. 13, p. 25.
Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, 38, 77.