The Menil has an important collection of masks, architectural elements, ceremonial and utilitarian objects, and musical instruments from the Pacific regions of Melanesia and Polynesia. A selection is exhibited in the Menil’s permanent gallery for the Pacific Islands and included among works in the Witnesses installation located in the Surrealism galleries. As emphasized by the museum’s Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision installation, the formation of this collection is deeply intertwined with the de Menils’ relationships with Surrealist artists and dealers in Paris and New York.
In 1932 the de Menils acquired two maro, or painted bark textiles, from the Humboldt Bay region of Papua, Indonesia. The French adventurer and amateur ethnographer Jacques Viot (1898–1973) had collected both maro in 1929. The de Menils added many important objects to this area of the collection between 1950 and 1970, including an important sculpture from Lake Sentani bought in 1957 and which had also been collected by Viot in 1929.
A finial from a supporting pillar of a bridge or ceremonial house, the sculpture depicts two figures joined back-to-back. Also acquired during this period are several exceptional large yipwon, called “hook figures,” from the peoples along the Sepik River and its tributaries in Papua New Guinea. These imposing, vertical wood figures with projecting hooks embody ancestral spirits, whose favor was essential to achieving success in hunting and warfare.