, Mogulapan Enlarge 1 /1
Sawos people East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Mogulapan 18th to early 19th century Description: Figure from a house post
Place made: Torembi Village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, natural pigments wood, ochres
Dimensions: 169.0 h x 40.0 w x 20.0 d cm
Accession No: NGA 69.230.181

More detail

One of the many works collected in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s by Sir William Dargie for the National Gallery of Australia, this imposing fragment of a founding ancestor has the personal name of Mogulapan. The figure would have been tied to the central post of many spirit houses (Haus tambaran) over generations. The spirit house was the focal point of all religious and social affairs of the community.

One spirit house in which Mogulapan stood during the early twentieth century was destroyed by fire and areas of scorched damage can still be seen. The role of the spirit Mogulapan was to be responsible for the wellbeing of the community, and he was ritually consulted as an oracle during times of hardship, such as disaster, disease or warfare.

The stomach and chest patterns show the incised keloid scarring that young men receive during initiation. Strong black designs on the cheeks echo the painted faces of men during ceremonial events connected to warfare and the ancestors. The elliptical-shaped eyes may represent those of a crocodile, a respected inhabitant of the river, connected to many aspects of Sepik river art.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

One of the many works collected in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s by Sir William Dargie for the National Gallery of Australia, this imposing fragment of a founding ancestor has the personal name of Mogulapan. The figure would have been tied to the central post of many spirit houses (haus tambaran) over generations.

The spirit house was the focal point of all religious and social affairs of the community. One spirit house in which Mogulapan stood during the early twentieth century was destroyed by fire and areas of scorched damage can still be seen. The role of the spirit Mogulapan was to be responsible for the wellbeing of the community, and he was ritually consulted as an oracle during times of hardship, such as disaster, disease or warfare.

The stomach and chest patterns show the incised keloid scarring that young men receive during initiation. Strong black designs on the cheeks echo the painted faces of men during ceremonial events connected to warfare and the ancestors. The elliptical-shaped eyes may represent those of a crocodile, a respected inhabitant of the river, connected to many aspects of Sepik River art.


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

Mogulapan is a primordial ancestor in the creation stories of the Sawos people of the East Sepik Province. This fragmentary figure (the lower torso, arms and legs are missing and overall the figure was once of much greater height) was carved in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century from a dense hardwood using only tools of stone, shell and bone. His chest bears circular scarification designs and there are triangular designs on his cheeks. Mogulapan’s protruding eyes may represent those of a crocodile. His form is convex to fit snugly when displayed tied to a post of a ceremonial house.

There is a large scorched area below the shoulder on the right that is said to be evidence of an historic event when a ceremonial house was stuck by lightning and caught fire. On 15 February 1969 Sir William Dargie, artist and portrait painter, acquired Mogulapan for the yet to be built National Gallery of Australia from Father Heinemann of the SVD (Societatis Verbi Divini, or the Missionaries of the Divine Word) based in Wewak. The SVD were active in the collection and resale of artefacts to pay for schools and medical posts along the Sepik River. In Sir Dargie’s diary he noted:

‘This figure, no.119, is bought subject to approval, by Sir Alan Mann, of its removal from the Territory. This item could be the ‘find’ of my tour. No doubt I could have bought it for less if I had found it myself in a village but it is still worth every cent of the asking price. I found Fr. Heinemann and one of the Brothers most sympathetic, though business like, they seem to accept the spirit as well as the letter of the (National Cultural Property) Ordinance, but having accepted, they are concerned to find a market within the limitations of the Ordinance, where they can dispose of the occasional rare piece they acquire. I got the impression that they do not so much buy artefacts from the villagers within their flock as trade them for the promise of an aid-post, an extension to the mission school etc. As Fr. Heinemann said ‘we need the money for our work’. I find this attitude quite acceptable especially as A.D.C. Hicks later told me that this particular mission is doing a fine job in his area’.[1]

Mogulapan was radiocarbon dated and is apparently about 230 years old with an uncertainty range of plus or minus 30 years. Environmental factors such as submersion in the muddy waters of the flooding Sepik and Kwatit rivers as well as fire damage have the potential to affect accurate dating, but there is no question that Mogulapan is indeed an archaic sculpture in terms of Sepik art. This dating sequence firmly places Mogulapan within an historic phase for Sawos art beside two similar works believed to have come from the same ceremonial house in Torembi village.[2]

When Dargie purchased the figure there was no information available for it beyond ‘large old stone carved wood figure from Torembi’. However, the discovery of a field photograph taken by anthropologist Anthony Forge helped to restore the identity of the figure. Typed on the reverse of the original photograph was Forge’s field note: ‘Tshwosh {one of} three figures said to be old posts set up beside the corner post of Aulimbit nggaigo at Nggeitebma/Torembi. Mogulapan, Nyamei moiety, no partner left.’ This provided the name of the ancestor, Mogulapan, and identified the ceremonial house he came from by name, Aulimbit. It must be kept in mind that as with so much significant ritual art from the Sepik region, there are layers of meaning.
According to Aulimbit community member Stephen Tapi, Mogulapan is the ‘known’ name for this figure—it has another name that is used only in ritual circumstances.[3]

When Mogulapan entered the Gallery’s collection, a layer of grey mud covered its entire surface. Originally the mud was thought to be a patina from being attached to a ceremonial house post through untold years of wet and dry seasons, but could have actually been intentional. If so, this obscuring layer could relate to the practice of painting and decorating ritual objects (ngamba) in order to attract the desired spirits (waken) to dwell in them, and then after use, desanctifying objects to purge them of waken.

The Forge photograph established a basis for conservation staff to remove the layer of mud and uncover the strong vivid ochres: yellow to the eyes, orange in the mouth, pupils and forehead, and those big dark triangles on the cheeks that the photo showed. Exactly why the layer of mud was applied, if indeed it was intentionally applied at all, remains unknown. Perhaps after negotiations to purchase Mogulapan, mud was collected from the banks of the Kwatit River and smeared on the figure as a temporary covering. We will never discover if this was to disguise Mogulapan from the eyes of the uninitiated, women and children as he was carried from the ceremonial house through the village on his departure, or whether it was to ritually encourage the spirit of Mogulapan to vacate the sculpture making it, in the eyes of the owners, just a hollow ‘shell’ ready to sell to the SVD missionaries.

[1] William Dargie field diaries on behalf of the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board diary 1. 15/1/69–18/2/69 p 62.

[2] Two monumental house posts held in the JOLIKA collection at the De Young Museum, San Francisco 2007.44.5 and 2007.44.4, both of which received similar radiocarbon dating results.

[3] Stephen Tapi, personal communication, November 2013.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2015

From: Crispin Howarth Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015