In the mountainous Punam region of southern New Ireland, the river beds where once scoured for chunks of chalk limestone a raw material traded to other communities who used it to carve small figures known as Kulap.
The Kulap shown here is a bold squat sculpture of a young woman with a beaming smile. She is poised excitedly on flexed legs with both hands clasped to her abdomen. Her hair is represented by cross hatching to resemble a tightly coiled hair style fashionable during the 19th century in New Ireland. Designs to both wrists and across her forehead depict shell or beaded ornaments - possibly items of attire for women during marriage ceremonies. According to travellers in the 19th century limestone figures were carved to commemorate the dead, only certain people where permitted to handle Kulap and they were exhibited in miniature ritual huts for a period of mourning. Kulap were believed to be the dwelling place on earth for the spirit of the deceased, a temporary container for the soul which prevented the dead person’s spirit from roaming the village creating mischief or causing harm to the living. Once the Kulap figures were no longer needed they would be removed from the hut, taken away and ritually smashed releasing the soul of the deceased onwards in its journey to the after world. The spread of Christian beliefs eroded the need for Kulap figures during the late 19th century and their use had ceased several years before the Australian administration of New Ireland in 1914.
A particularly pleasing part of this Kulap’s visual attraction is the fact that it has remained intact, spared the destruction seen in so many other fragmentary examples after ceremonial use. The perfect condition may have been due to the entrepreneurialism of the owner trading a potently charged Kulap onto visiting German administrators or traders shortly after funerary rites rather than disposing in a traditional manner. Many works deemed too powerful, steeped with negative magic, to continue keeping in a village were willingly traded to westerners to take away during this era.
Curator, Pacific Arts
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra