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The island of New Guinea is extremely rugged. Even today there are few roads. Dugout canoes are the main transportation along the long inland rivers such as the Sepik, the Fly and their tributaries, as well as in the extensive lagoons and swampy regions such as the Asmat. Out-rigger canoes sail along the coast and between the outer islands.
Figure 1: Crocodile head prow, Sepik River, ESP, PNG
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. An ordinary canoe lasts around 5 to 7 years. One from better wood lasts 10 to 12. When canoes rot, many of the prows are cut off and saved for the artifact buyers.
Figure 2:Out-rigger canoe, Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Canoes are traditionally 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 usually 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.
Figure 3: Bird head canoe prow, Irian Jaya, Indonesia (These prows are carved as separate pieces and attached; whereas, the Sepik crocodile prows are part of the dugout log.)
Canoes from the north coast of Irian Jaya frequently have bird prows and the outriggers also have bird figures attached, carvings on the side include flying fish and other lilting symbols that formerly appeared on the tapa cloth from this area.
Figure 4: Canoe prow from Biak Island area, Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Larger prows, such as the Trobriand prow and the prow from the Biak area, are more complex and contain many different motifs. One of the early classics of Western anthropology is Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonants of the Western Pacific which studied the long Trobriand Kula trade voyages in their ocean-going outrigger canoes and the complex circular exchange route of gifts between the trading partners.
Figure 5: Prow from Kula trade canoe, Trobriand Islands, PNG
On the rivers, men from villages far up-stream, cut timber and make a raft of the logs. They put up a small shelter, tie a canoe to the raft , sometimes load the whole family and dogs on and take a few chickens to eat on the way. They drift down to a sawmill, sell their timber, buy supplies at the trade store and then slowly paddle back home. Without an outboard motor, this round trip takes weeks.
Figure 6: Crocodile head prow, Swagup area, ESP, PNG
The addition of outboard motors makes travel much faster than travel with paddles or sails, but fuel is expensive and sometimes difficult to get. Engines break down in the middle of nowhere. In the Asmat, only kerosene motors are used and we have to ship our fuel drums around ahead of time by the small coastal freighters, as people usually only have enough for their own use and are reluctant to sell any. On a two week artifact collecting patrol, we carry two to four 52 US gallon drums of petrol (416 to 832 liters). Each large dugout canoe (up to 40 feet, about 13 meters) has a 40hp motor.
Figure 7: Double canoe waiting to be loaded, Sepik River, ESP, PNG
Sometimes we double the canoes and put a platform across to make stacking the artifacts easier, then pitch a blue plastic tarp for shade. It's comfortable in a canoe if it's moving. The motor is noisy, but the vibration is soothing, and the speed generates a cooling breeze, but when you stop, the sun beats down. And when it storms, it's amazing how freezing cold you can feel in the tropics in the middle of a big, endlessly winding river in a driving rain.
Figure 8: Men unloading artifacts from a double canoe at Timbunke, East Sepik Prov., PNG, mid-1980s.
One of my favorite times is at dawn when the women paddle out in their small canoes to fish. They glide silently out through the morning haze. On board are big, bulbous fish baskets, a pot shard with some smoking coals to light a hand-rolled cigarette or pipe and to keep the mosquitoes at bay. 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 sago, garden produce and dried fish to trade in the market. Later, the men and their families pole bigger canoes to their slash and burn gardens or sago palm harvesting areas back along the edge of the river and its lagoons.
Figure 9: Kuvenmas Village girl in dugout canoe, Blackwater Rv., ESP, PNG
The villagers cut or widen narrow channels to provide better access. In the dry season, only small canoes may make it up these barets that wind back to villages deep in the vast heart of the Sepik flood plain. In the wet season, when the water comes up under the floors of the stilt houses and a canoe is the only way to travel even between houses, remote villages become more accessible. It's easier to paddle than to walk, especially if you are carrying something. Women generally sit and paddle, men stand and pole.
The war canoes of the men have canoe shields on the front, a row of standing men in full body paint, spears ready and long paddles with feathers flying from the shafts. They chant and shout in unison as they pole the long dugouts towards their enemies. These days, war canoes are mostly for celebrations such as Independence Day or paid performances for the tourists or visiting TV special crews.
Figure 10: Asmat dugout canoe prow, Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Ceremonial canoes also include large dance platforms in the shape of a canoe and special wooden canoes with carved spirit figures. Canoe racing is popular and on the Sepik there are new hot-rod dugout canoes, shaped roughly like a speedboat. One of our friend's sons accidentally rammed another canoe and it cost him his father's outboard motor in payback.
There is etiquette for canoes: clean the mud off your feet before stepping in, no dipping your hand in the water while the canoe is moving and splashing everyone behind you. The man in the prow watches for sandbars and snags and signals with his vocabulary of hand signs back to the motor man - don't block their view.
In New Guinea, a canoe is like a car; it provides transportation and more. A canoe with a beautiful prow has status and power.
Figure 11: Bird head canoe prow, Irian Jaya, Indonesia
See also: Karumosa, a Kula canoe from the Trobriand Islands
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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.
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