Kuba Divination Object

Itoom webThis small wooden animal carving is known as an itoom and is used as an object of divination among the Kuba people, who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  When practicing divination, Kuba diviners, called ngwoom, make an inquiry and then rub a small wooden disc with a smooth base and a projecting knob over the back of the itoom.  The answer to the ngwoom’s inquiry is determined by where the disc sticks as it is rubbed across the itoom’s back.  You can see that the back of this carving has been worn down from use.  Common animals represented by itoom are crocodiles, warthogs, lizards, and dogs.  You can see this artifact on display in the new exhibit A Glimpse of Africa: Five Cultures from the Continent.

Kuna Mola

Kuna Mola web

This colorful textile made by the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands in Panama is known as a molaMolas form part of a Kuna woman’s traditional clothing with the brightly colored panels applied to the front and back of a blouse.  Molas are made of several layers of different colored cloth, which are cut away to form the intricate design, in this case a sea turtle.  The layers are then sewn together with nearly invisible stitches.  These textiles are the best-known representation of Kuna culture to outsiders, and to the Kuna people are a symbol of ethnic pride.

Model Kayak


This model of a kayak was made by the Yup’ik people in the Kuskokwim River Valley of Alaska.  It was collected by Moravian missionaries who worked in the area beginning in the late 1880s.  The model kayak is made of seal hide stretched over a wooden framework.  Traditionally, a kayak was a Yup’ik hunter’s most prized possession and a symbol of manhood.  To help identify individual kayaks, men often added unique painted designs or modified the bow or stern shape of the boat.  The Yup’ik used kayaks for seal hunting, fishing, and general transportation.  This model kayak is currently on view in the new exhibit The Yup’ik Way of Life: An Alaskan People in Transition.

Heart Ex-Voto

This wooden carving from Canindé, Brazil, is known as an ex-votoHeart web
or milagre (Portuguese).  Canindé is an important pilgrimage site, particularly during the feast of St. Francis.  In areas with such strong traditions of petitioning God or saints for relief from troubles, religious pilgrims offer these objects in gratitude for their answered prayers, often for recovery from an illness or injury.    Ex-votos can take the form of paintings or sculptures made from a variety of materials including wood, cloth, or wax.  They often represent parts of the body that have been healed.  The petitioner in this case may have recovered from a heart attack or other cardiac ailment.  The MOA has more than 275 votive sculptures from Brazil in the permanent collection.

Ceremonial Flute

PNG FlutewebThis ceremonial flute is from the Mumeri Village in the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea.  Papua New Guinea is home to one of the most diverse populations in the world with over 1,000 separate communities with their own customs and traditions and more than 800 languages spoken in an area slightly larger than California.

Mumeri Village is particularly noted for their handcrafted flutes which include elaborately designed wooden stoppers decorated with faces representing clan figures as well as totemic animal figures.  The stoppers are painted with clay or vegetable based pigments.  The sacred flutes are usually played in pairs during ceremonies and initiations.  The Mumeri people consider the low melodic tones to be the voices of the clan’s ancestor spirits.  Traditionally, women, children, and uninitiated boys are not allowed to see the flute being played.

Inuit Lithograph


This 1976 framed lithograph by Canadian Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona is titled “Memories of Childbirth.”  The print depicts a woman in labor supported by 3 other women on the left side and the woman post-labor holding her child on the right.  Pitseolak (1904-1983) did not begin working as an artist until later in life as a way to support her family after relocating to Cape Dorset on Baffin Island following her husband’s death.  Her artwork can also be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.