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Cendrawasih Bay Ancestor Figure (Korwar)

Cendrawasih Bay, Western Irian Jaya (New Guinea), Indonesia
19th century

height: 25cm, width 10.5cm, depth: 11cm, weight: 420g



Estate of the collector Prof. Dr. Christian Eggers (1938-2020), Germany.

This fine example of an ancestor figure or korwar  has been carved from a single piece of light wood. It is from the Cendrawasih Bay (formerly, the Geelvink Bay) area in the far west of the island of New Guinea on the Indonesian part known as Irian Jaya. It is an area that is close to and culturally influenced by the Moluccas (Maluku) of Eastern Indonesia.

The figure is of male anthromorphic form, and stands on an oval platform, behind a shield-like openwork panel which it grasps with both hands.

It has a pointed head covering, a wide nose, a wide open mouth with two rows of teeth, and wild eyes. The hollowed eyes are inset with typical blue-glass trade beads.

The significance of the ‘shield’ is unclear and might be related to both a snake and a door. Snakes are of spiritual significance and the door can be interpreted as the interface between the living world and the land of the ancestors.

Korwar figures embody a deceased family member and were used to facilitate communication by the living with that deceased individual. They were consulted by villagers themselves or with the assistance of a priest.

Dutch missionaries had collected and destroyed many korwar figures by the 1930s. Others were sent to museums in the Netherlands. Within a short period, the use of korwar figures largely stopped and no more were carved.

Sotheby’s Paris has had related examples, and many examples now mostly in Dutch museum collections are illustrated in Corbey (2017).

The figure here has a shiny, dark, varying patina. It is very sculptural with a dramatic countenance.


Corbey, R., Raja Ampat Ritual Art: Spirit Priests and Ancestor Cults in New Guinea’s Far West, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2017.

Rossel, S. & A. Wentholt (eds.), Tribal Treasures in Dutch Private Collections, AFDH Publishers, 2008.

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