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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Canoes and Canoe Prows from New Guinea

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[Sepik Crocodile Prow: 21k]

Figure 1: Crocodile head prow, Sepik River, ESP, PNG

The island of New Guinea is extremely rugged. Even today there are few roads. Dugout canoes are the main transportation on the long inland rivers like the Sepik and in the extensive lagoons and swampy regions. Out-rigger canoes sail along the coast and between the outer islands. The addition of outboard motors make travel much faster than with paddles or sails, but fuel is expensive and sometimes difficult to get.

A man will travel a long way up river to buy a large log. The log is towed back to the village, lifted onto the bank and roughed out with an adz. Fire is used to help burn out the interior and seal the surface against insects. The prow is shaped according to the tradition of the area, sometimes additional designs are carved on the sides. It may be painted with natural pigments or store house paint. For use with an outboard, a separate plank is tightly fitted into the back as a transom and caulked with clay. A canoe lasts around five to seven years. When canoes rot, many of the prows are cut off and saved for the artifact buyers.

Canoes are decorated with clan symbols and other emblems of power to insure speed and success. Along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, even the smallest child's canoe has a carved crocodile head prow. In Irian Jaya, an Asmat canoe may have an ancestral clan figure for a prow, similar to the ones used on their Bis poles. Canoes from the north coast of Irian Jaya have bird prows. Larger prows, such as the ones on the Trobriand Kula trade canoes or on war or ceremonial canoes, are more complex and contain many different motifs.

At dawn, the village women paddle in their small canoes out to fish. In Angoram and at other Sepik River road heads, women arrive in the early morning and line their canoes along the steep clay banks to unload their produce and dried fish to trade in the market. Later, the men and their families pole bigger canoes to slash and burn gardens or sago palm harvesting areas back along the edge of the river and its lagoons.

In New Guinea, a canoe is like a car; it provides transportation and more. A canoe with a beautiful prow has status and power.

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0