Coming Soon | "Korwar: Northwest New Guinea Ritual Art According to Missionary Sources" by Raymond Corbey


© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands



Northwest New Guinea Ritual Art
According to Missionary Sources


by Raymond Corbey


To be published by C. Zwartenkot Art Books (Leiden, The Netherlands) | October 2019


Dutch Protestant missionaries have provided the earliest and most extensive sources regarding the meanings, functions and cultural contexts of the ritual art of the Papuan peoples of the Geelvink Bay (Teluk Cenderawasih). Here, from the very beginning of the mission in 1855, the missionaries were confronted with spirit cults, head-hunting, endemic violence, effigies with large genitals, slavery, etc. Their knowledge of local customs and languages, often acquired during decades, combined with strict administrative routines, remained unmatched, even by such sophisticated early field collectors like administrator F.S.A. de Clercq.

The clerics have been responsible for the presence of thousands of ritual items in public and private collections, including numerous korwar ancestor effigies. Many of these items passed through temporary missionary exhibitions in the Netherlands during the first half of the 20th-century. While converting the missionaries collected, but they also destroyed, or had destroyed, at least as many items. This c.400 pp. monograph with 320 illustrations chronicles and analyzes such goings-on between c.1860 and c.1940, bringing missionary and other sources to bear on c.300 mostly unpublished ritual objects and their itineraries.

Map of the Geelvink Bay (Teluk Cenderawasih, Northwest New Guinea), showing four of the five korwar style areas, with a few characteristic examples for each area (h. c.20—40 cm). The fifth style area, the Raja Ampat Archipelago in New Guinea’s far West, is not shown here. By and large, it is not that difficult to allocate a korwar to one of these distinctive styles, with the exception of the Schouten Islands and Yapen styles, which the untrained eye cannot easily discern. However, several rather consistent differences between the two areas can be observed, as is argued in the book. Source of the korwar drawings: F.S.A. de Clercq, & J.D.E. Schmeltz 1893. Ethnographische beschrijving van de West- en Noordkust van Nederlandsch Nieuw-Guinea, Leiden: P. W. M. Trap; Plates XXXIV and XXXV. Map by Marco Langbroek.


In c.1910, the Museum van het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen in Batavia (now the Museum Nasional, Jakarta) published this skull korwar (h. c.50 cm), which presumably hails from the Schouten Islands, on a picture postcard.

Characteristic Biak-style dwellings (1907) with turtle-shaped roofs located at Wari village, on the northwest coast of Biak Island.


The book issued from the author’s longstanding interest in interactions between western and local cosmologies on the Christian frontier, in particular in the Netherlands East Indies. It is a continuation of his 2017 monograph on the ritual art of the Raja Ampat archipelago, a major emigration area of the Geelvink Bay Biak people: Raja Ampat ritual art: Spirit priests and ancestor cults in New Guinea’s far West (2017).

We have asked the author why, in a book on indigenous ritual art, place so much emphasis on missionary records (correspondence, annual reports, personal diaries, photographs, etc.) and periodicals?

Corbey: “In spite of their ethnocentric ideological agenda these writings constitute invaluable sources regarding the ritual practices and art of the region. They have remained largely unexplored, in particular in Th. van Baaren’s Korwars and korwar style (1968), a solid survey of early korwar scholarship. The same goes for another outstanding resource, the 1893 monograph by F.S.A. de Clercq - Resident of Ternate (Moluccas/Maluku), private scholar and collector - and museum director J.D.E. Schmeltz on northwest New Guinea art. This publication came about too early to profit from missionary records, although de Clercq learned much from his interactions with various missionaries while travelling.”


A korwar stick amulet (h. c.7 cm., figure) with two white heirloom beads; the lower part is wrapped in cotton. Groningen University Museum (the Netherlands), the Van Baaren Collection.


Raymond Corbey


Raymond Corbey holds a chair in both Anthropology and Philosophy of Science at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Most of his research focuses on human evolution. The present book issues from a second research line: western representations and practices (stereotypes, photography, collecting, exhibiting, missions, iconoclasm) regarding nonwestern societies and, in particular, nonwestern ritual art. 

His research in this field focuses on the Netherlands East Indies and includes the following monographs:

  • Jurookng: Shamanic amulets from Southeast Borneo (2018)

  • Raja Ampat ritual art: Spirit priests and ancestor cults in New Guinea’s far West (2017)

  • Of jars and gongs: Two keys to Ot Danum Dayak cosmology (2016)

  • Headhunters from the swamps: The Marind Anim of New Guinea as seen by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, 1905-1925 (2010)

Corbey also published an analysis of the Brussels- Paris-Amsterdam tribal art scene: Tribal art traffic: A chronicle of taste, trade and desire in colonial and post-colonial times (2000). In 2015 he co-edited The European scholarly reception of "primitive art" in the decades around 1900 (with Wilfried van Damme).


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