Ancestral Art of Papua New Guinea

The people of Papua New Guinea have deep spiritual connections to everything surrounding them. They see the world as a multi-level universe that is home to a variety of spirits. The ancestors are not forgotten after death, rather, they continue to communicate and interact with the living. Furthermore, everything in the world has a spiritual essence. Whether animal or plant or human, the spiritual entities surrounding the people of Papua New Guinea all play important roles in the tribal culture.

This vast spirit world is respected and celebrated, and the intention of most art is to communicate or otherwise reach out to the spirits for various purposes. “Everything, both animate and inanimate, has a spirit essence that survives indefinitely and, therefore, needs constantly to be acknowledged and appeased.” Villagers often dress themselves as clan totem spirits during celebrations and ritual dances (Ancestor).

Spirit houses, such as the ones seen above, are a residing place for ancestor spirits, and serve as a location for rituals and ceremonies. It is in these houses that many of the masks, costumes, effigy figures, and other art pieces are housed if they are not destroyed after use. (Ancestor). “Haus Tambaran" is the name given to such spirit houses in the East Sepik region. The men of the tribe gather in these houses to debate village matters and conduct rituals, and masks, shields, and carvings line the walls to invite spirits to take part in the meetings (Papua).

The art objects generally depict and symbolize the ancestors - tribal, clan, and personal - as well as incorporating important animal and plant spirits and are often used to drive away evil spirits and to keep the village safe (The Rich History)


This type of ceremonial mask was made in honor of both male and female dead leaders. The bars across the face have different meanings, but often refer to a person’s last breath or the exit of the life force (Masks).
Tago masks represent the spirits of significant ancestors, and are used in year-long ceremonies reminding each clan of its ancestral connections. The masks appear in performances celebrating the arrival and departure of the spirits (Masks).
Funerary masks like this one depict death, and are worn by men during funerary ceremonies. The spikes resemble the hair of an old man, the shell eyes bulge from the head, and the snake is a symbol of death (Masks).
Susu masks of the Sulka tribe are used during various important ceremonies. The masks represent certain spirits and are destroyed after their use in the ritual. This particular mask has elongated earlobes and blackened teeth, representing initiated men (Masks).
This carved face likely represents a main ancestral spirit, Nggwal, and was used for initiations and yam ceremonies. The mask was probably part of a larger display within a spirit house (Masks).

A modern-day Papua New Guinean artist carves Malagan Tatanua masks following traditional methods. “Tatanua” refers to the living spirits of the dead. The dancers wear the masks and dance in the waters to drive away evil spirits from the ceremony sites (Chiu-Freund).

The wood is a soft wood from the Saba tree.
The paints are made from natural pigments. White is made from dead coral; red is made from a red rock cooked and mixed with coconut oil; black is from a fruit seeds of a Kalapulim tree; and yellow is from yellow ginger root or turmeric (Chiu-Freund).


Funerary figures such as this one were intended to depict specific ancestors who possessed special powers to help the tribespeople. These figures portrayed both male and female ancestors and were housed in small shrines outside the village (Collection).
These Kulap figures represented recently deceased individuals. These figures were placed inside a shrine within a ceremonial building and served as temporary dwelling places for the spirits of the dead. If the spirits lacked a dwelling place, they might wander and cause harm to the living. Only men could directly view these figures, but women were allowed to gather outside the building and mourn the dead relatives (Collection).
The Malagan funerary carvings are exquisite pieces of work. The word “malagan” refers to a series of ceremonies and the art forms connected with them. Different malagan ceremonies mark important life stages. The largest and most impressive carvings are brought out during the final ceremony for the deceased. After a person’s death, some malagan are carved for the initial funerary ceremonies, but the most spectacular carvings are created months or years after the individual’s death. The carvings display the individual’s achievements and milestones, as well as representing different beings associated with the individual’s clan. The performance of the final malagan rites frees the living from their obligations to the dead (Collection).
Further examples of Malagan carvings


This is an example of a Korwar, a sculpted figure that portrays a recently deceased ancestor. The Korwar figures played an important role in the lives of Papua New Guinean communities, serving as spiritual guides in many ways. When a family member died, the family called a religious carver to create a korwar and call the spirit to enter the figure. The figures are usually seated in a conventional pose, and the shells used as eyes on the korwar were intended to help the spirit recognize his or her own image. Korwar figures were consulted in any major decisions, including trades and battles with other tribes. The presence of the figures was a protective force and served as a reminder of the ancestors at all times. However, the Korwar were not absolutely untouchable. When a Korwar’s advice proved itself to be true, it was greatly honored; if the Korwar was proved to be incorrect, the figure was attacked and sometimes even destroyed (Collection).
The clans of the Sawos people of the Middle Sepik River are associated with particular ancestors and totemic creatures. Ancestral figures like the one pictured represent a category of powerful and potentially dangerous ancestral beings called wan or waken. This figure, called Minjemtimi, is said to have come to life to fight invaders until it was hit with a spear. After being hit it turned back into a wooden figure and was carried off by raiders. The marks on the abdomen of the figure seems to depict the ritual scarifications made on initiated Sawos tribesmen (Collection).
This ancestor figure is an example of those made along the Sepik River, by the Angoram and Kopar peoples. These figures are decorated with totemic animals associated with the village people. These ancestral figures were called upon before travels and raids, not unlike the Korwar images (Collection).
This figure hails from the Bogadjim village and was used for various ceremonies throughout the village. The figures were used as temporary houses for ancestral spirits and allowed the spirits to join in celebrations and feasts. This particular ancestor was likely a person of status, as evidenced by the headdress and the forms on his chest that represent highly prized pig’s tusks (Collection).
Bioma figures such as these were focused on the powerful imunu spirits of southeast Papua New Guinea tribes. Different imunu spirits were associated with particular landscapes and clans, and these figures were used as dwellings for specific imunu spirits. The images were typically figures with low relief designs, and were kept in spirit houses along with other objects associated with the imunu (Collection).
These Yipwon figures of the Yimam people are distinctive ancestor figures that also have a significant place in the tribe culture. The center of the figure is the heart, encircled by concentric hooks representing ribs. The Yipwon figures served as the vessels into which the ancient Yipwon spirits were called before a raid or hunting trip. After the ceremony of offerings, the Yipwon spirits went ahead of the tribesmen to destroy the souls of the enemies or animals, which enabled the tribesmen to easily kill the enemies or animals the next day. Once again, like other ancestral vessels, the Yipwon figures were treated according to their success (Collection).

The importance of the ancestors and the spirit world is universal within the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Death is not the end but rather a transition into another plane of existence - one that is tangible and connected. The vibrant art of Papua New Guinea celebrates and links the living and the dead and is a beautiful tribute to the cycle of life.


Works Cited

“Ancestor Spirits in Papua New Guinea.” Culture of the Countryside, Accessed 22 April 2017.

Chiu-Freund, Stella. “Malagan Tatanua Masks of Kavieng, New Ireland, PNG." WWF Coral Triangle Blog, 14 June 2010. Accessed 30 April 2017.

Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-2017,!/search?geolocation=Papua%20New%20Guinea. Accessed 1 May 2017.

“Masks from Melanesia.” Australian Museum, Accessed 25 April 2017.

“Papua New Guinea: Sepik River Initiation and the Crocodile Cult.” Wilder Utopia, Accessed 9 May 2017.

“The Rich History of New Guinea Tribal Artifacts." Reptile Gardens, 24 July 2013. Accessed 27 April 2017.

Created By
Michelle Krestyn

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