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Chimbut or Inyai East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Aripa c. 1480-1670 AD Place made: Korewori River, East Sepik Province Middle Sepik, Papua New Guinea Melanesia Papua New Guinea
Materials & Technique: sculptures, figurines, wood, ochre
Dimensions: height 174.5 h x 32.0 w x 6.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2011
Accession No: NGA 2011.1477

This exceptionally carved hunter’s helper figure (aripa) is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is ancient, life-sized and dominates the area around with its presence. By comparison with related figures in museums in Europe, we know that this is a male figure as males were created to be viewed from the side, females from the front. The two serrated spiral sections represent the heart and lung area of a body and are reminiscent of unfurling fern tips; the overarching finial of spikes gives us the impression that this figure is part human, part forest.

Aripa figures first came to the notice of the outside world in the early 1960s, when the few remaining Inyai-Ewa people living in the heavily forested region of the headwaters of the Upper Korewori (Karawari) River began trading the figures for goods or to pay head tax. These figures were originally used by hunters who understood that each aripa figure had a soul of its own, a soul that the hunter could interact with and induce to go out and find the soul of an animal that he wanted to hunt. After a hunter died, his aripa figure was left in a cave with his bones and some of his possessions. The bones and possessions were eventually scattered, but the aripa figures often remained, some for centuries. Most aripa figures are between two hundred and four hundred years old, with the most recent dating from the early nineteenth century.

The wood from which this recently acquired aripa was carved has been radiocarbon dated to around 1480–1670, making it the earliest wooden object in the Gallery’s Melanesian collection. The Gallery’s conservators have carefully stabilised the figure, which had dried out and become fragile after centuries in a cave, and it is ready to begin its second life as a work of art.

Michael Gunn Senior Curator, Pacific Art


in artonview, issue 74, Winter 2013

This exceptionally carved hunter’s helper figure (aripa) is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is ancient, life-sized and its presence dominates the area around it. It is a male form—males were created to be viewed from the side, females from the front. The two serrated spiral sections represent the heart and lung area of a body and are reminiscent of unfurling fern tips, and the overarching finial of spikes gives us the impression that this figure is part human, part forest.

Aripa figures first came to the notice of the outside world in the early 1960s, when the few remaining Inyai-Ewa people living in the heavily forested region of the headwaters of the Upper Korewori (Karawari) River began trading them for goods or to pay head tax. They were originally used by hunters who understood that each aripa figure had a soul of its own, a soul that the hunter could interact with and induce to go out and find the soul of an animal that he wanted to hunt.

After a hunter died, his aripa figure was left in a cave with his bones and some of his possessions. The bones and possessions were eventually scattered, but the aripa figures often remained, some for centuries. Most aripa figures are between 200 and 400 years old, with the most recent dating from the early nineteenth century.

Michael Gunn, Senior Curator, Pacific Art


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014