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Representing Ancestors

Sacred Works of Art

The sacred art objects shown here come from the collection of over 200 works donated to the Graduate Theological Union by the Lanier Graham family and the Institute for Aesthetic Development in 2014-2015. The collection represents most of the world religious traditions, including tribal or indigenous art.  The GTU intends to photograph and curate this collection as an online resource accessible by the public.  In coming editions of The Interfaith Observer, at least one object will be introduced each month.

The figure pictured here is an Ancestor Figure from the Sepik River Region of Papua New Guinea. Many religions consider ancestors to be continuing members of the human community after death, capable of exercising good or ill will and existing unseen at the edges of society. 

Representations of ancestors are a way of honoring the departed but also of gaining control over their influence and potential disruption of ordinary life.  Therefore, some cultures gain favor with the departed spirits by offering symbolic gifts of food or other items of value which might be left at an altar or religious site or burned in order to pass the offering over into another realm. 

Ancestors, through representations, are included on ceremonial occasions, especially occasions that mark transitions like birth, death, and marriage. This particular figure is made of painted wood, shells, and feathers mounted on bone. Art objects are considered to be religious or sacred objects that embed magical power, and therefore significant artistic effort is devoted to producing a complex and aesthetically pleasing outcome.