New Guinean Birth Figure at San Francisco’s de Young Museum


Figure, Madang or Morobe Province, north coast of Huon Peninsula, possibly east of the Rai Coast
19th century, wood and pigment
Gift of Marcia and John Friede

I came across this figure during a recent visit to San Francisco’s de Young Museum and was immediately intrigued by its clear representation of birth. The information that the museum provides, pasted below, discusses some of the figure’s history and possible meaning.  I found particularly interesting the story of the female divinity who gave birth to yams. It reminded me of the famous Indonesian origin myth of Hainuwele, a girl born from a coconut tree whose body then produced tubers in the soil after she died.

This highly decorated figure of a woman giving birth is both visually compelling and enigmatic due to the rarity of its type.  While carvings of women are not uncommon in the corpus of figurative sculpture from New Guinea, representations of birth scenes are extremely rare, and the original function of this figure is unknown.  In 1969 Carl Schmitz wrote of this figure, “It is not clear whether the representations concerns the birth of a human being, or the legend of a female divinity who gave birth to yams as well as people and was the founder of mankind.”  A recent study suggests the figure appears both male and female based on the face and adornment articles.  This interpretation is consistent with New Guinea origin stories, which often recount epic relationships between female and male ancestors with transposable and mutable roles and qualities.

In its strong representation of birth, the figure is helpful to others interested in visualizing the body’s ability to open up for birth.  The image is also helpful in how it reminds women that birth has been experienced by many other women throughout time, culture, and history.  This connection to the lineage of birth can be calming or empowering for the pregnant women.  For more images related to the lineage of birth see any of these previous Visualizing Birth posts: Willendorf, Ancient Egypt, Medieval IslamicClassical GreekAncient Etruscan Image, Timna Valley).