Female Figure (Tetepeku), Wood, paint, Sculpture, 108 x 58.4 x 17.8 cm, 19th–early 20th century.


The complex male initiation cycle of the Abelam people is restricted to men. However, its sacred spaces and sculptures are often suffused with female symbolism and imagery. In the highest initiation rites, tetepeku, slender female images with long legs spread wide, are erected inside the men’s ceremonial house above the main entrance and the entrances to the interior passages and initiation chamber. As they enter the house or initiation chamber, the male initiates stoop or crawl beneath the tetepeku, emerging from between her legs into the sacred space beyond, an act likely symbolic of the rebirth of the novices as initiated men. Once past the tetepeku, the full splendor of the initiation chamber, with its brilliantly colored paintings and carvings representing the clan spirits (nggwalndu) and other supernatural beings is revealed. Although smaller than most examples, this figure is almost certainly a tetepeku. Repainted many times, it likely witnessed the transformation of generations of novices into initiated men.