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Signed 20th C. PNG Sepik River Painted Wood Fish Totem

Oceania, Papua New Guinea, Sepik River, probably Iatmul people, ca. early 20th century CE. A huge, hand-carved wooden fish totem, painted black, with a white underbelly and white, red, and blue dots on its skin. Its tail is red and blue, its fins red and white, and its mouth lined with red and opened wide to reveal a white interior. The underbelly is signed in red paint on one side with "MAKAM." A series of white feathers are sewn along the top of the body, and a framework of woven wicker is around its neck. A long cluster of wooden slats with dangling reeds hanging from them is below the fish. A sturdy, wooden pole attached to the center of the fish's underside, allowing it to be used as a puppet or carried in a procession. Size: 36.25" W x 34.25" H (92.1 cm x 87 cm); 35" H (88.9 cm) on included custom stand.

In the traditional lifestyle along the huge Sepik River, many people live in matrilineal clans, which are called "ghu." Each ghu has a set of totem animals and plants, with birds and fish or other marine animals being the most important. These totems represent ancestors. Carved totemic animals are also used in dances. For example, Eastern Iatmul people perform a dance to a song concerning two fish who are portrayed by wooden carvings like this one. Men decorate the sculptures in the bush outside the villages before they perform, imbuing them with magic and the spirit of the ancestors.

Condition: Surface wear commensurate with age, but overall in excellent condition. Feathers have some small losses. Pigment is in nice condition. Very light surface cracking. Signature in red paint on one side.

Provenance: ex-private Tucson, Arizona, USA collection; ex-Ron Perry collection; Ron Perry collected art and artifacts for more than 40 years in New Guinea and the South Pacific. He collaborated with Carolyn Leigh to write a book entitled, "Art Dealer in the Last Unknown: Ron Perry & New Guinea Art: the early years 1964-1972" (2011)

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