The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Height: 53.000 cm
Gift of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum
Philippines, late 19th - early 20th century AD
A tale of detection
This kind of figure has been identified by some as a bulul made by the Ifugao who live in the northern highlands of the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The Ifugao are particularly known for the irrigated rice terraces built on the hillsides. Bulul figures, roughly carved out of wood, are important elements in the rituals and beliefs that accompany the agricultural cycle. However, this particular figure and a few others resembling it in other European museums are distinct from other bulul sculptures: their features are more angular and they show no signs of having been used in rituals. The evidence from Spanish collections shows that they were being made in northern Luzon by the 1880s, in areas where the Ifugao lived. The carvers also seem to have abandoned this style quite quickly. But the mystery as to the precise origin and function of these figures remains unsolved.
The angular style of this kind of figure appealed to European artists and art historians of the twentieth century. They were used to illustrate books on primitive art and this piece was at one time part of the collections belonging to the French Surrealists André Breton and Paul Eluard.
B. Durrans, 'Angular wooden figures from northern Luzon', Arts & Cultures, 1 (2000), pp. 111-22
W.B. Fagg, The tribal image: wooden figur (London, The British Museum Press, 1970)
F. Boas, Primitive art (New York, Dover Publications, 1927)
D. Fraser, Primitive art-1 (London, Thames & Hudson, 1962)