Skull rack (agiba)
From the Valerie Franklin Collection
Skull racks were the most valued ritual objects created in the Gulf of Papua which is located on the southern coast of the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. These racks depict imunu spirits which are associated with features of the natural landscape and surrounding waters. To maintain prosperity in the community, families owning land containing imunu would create sculptures, including skull racks, to honor individual spirits.
Placed on the walls of collective family shrines, these sculptures were designed to suspend skulls from the prongs framing the figure’s torso using loops of rattan. Skulls served to empower the honored spirit while functioning as a tangible symbol of the family’s strength and vitality. While it is unknown how many skulls this rack held, some contained dozens of skulls which would have been placed on a supplemental shelf below the rack for additional support. The art of the Papuan Gulf hovers between painting and sculpture, with low relief calligraphic lines flowing in bordered spaces. Figures from the Papuan Gulf tend to have circular eyes, upturned mouths and prominent navels that refer to birth and spiritual rebirth.