This finely attenuated seated figure has the classically rounded head associated with Massim figurative forms, elongated arms and legs, and incised body decoration with powdered lime highlights. A thin nose comes off a powerful brow line, and leads to a long, thin mouth and square jaw.
The white lime used to highlight the incised decoration would have been obtained from burning and crushing coral – the same powdered lime that the Massim people used as part of the betel quid, a mild social narcotic obtained from the nuts of the areca palm.
The Massim region, located in the far south-eastern tip of New Guinea, is a world of small islands connected by canoe. According to Peltier & Morin (2007, p. 183), free-standing human figures are comparatively rare. There is no evidence that such figures represented ancestors of ‘cultural heroes’, but rather appear to have served as vessels to be inhabited by protective spirits.
This example has a fine, deep red-brown patina, and several age-related splits here and there, as is typical of much wooden figurative art from this region.
Peltier, P. & F. Morin, Shadows of New Guinea: Art from the Great Island of Oceania in the Barbier-Mueller Collections, Somogy, 2007.