Yimam people, Korewori River, Papua New Guinea, 1500-1700
Height : 158 cm
Provenance : Galerie Pierre Robin, Paris
Kept within the men’s ceremonial house, the distinctive hook figures (yipwon) of the Yimam
people of the Korewori River region in northeast New Guinea formerly played a central role
in hunting and warfare. Depicting powerful spirits, the images served as vessels into which
the spirits were called before a hunt or raid and presented with offerings. The yipwon then
went forth during the night to slay the souls of the game or human enemies, enabling the
men to easily kill the actual animals or enemies the following day. If a yipwon was successful,
the men showed their gratitude by offering it a portion of the game or smearing it with the
victims’ blood. If it failed, the figure was neglected or discarded.
Local oral tradition describes the origin of these distinctive images. During the primordial
creation period, the sun, who formerly lived on earth, first carved a slit gong (a large musical
instrument). As he did so, the chips of wood from the slit gong came to life as yipwon
spirits, who lived with him in the men’s ceremonial house. One day, when the sun was away,
the spirits killed one of his male relatives and danced around his body. Hearing the noise,
the sun’s mother, the moon, turned around and saw what the yipwon had done. Terrified at
being caught, the yipwon fled into the ceremonial house, where they stretched themselves out
against the back wall, turning into wood images. Enraged by their act, the sun ascended into
the sky, leaving the yipwon on earth to serve as patron spirits of hunting and warfare.
Yipwon images portray both external and internal features of the spirits. Although highly
stylized, the head and single leg appear relatively naturalistic in comparison with the central
section of the body, which consists of a series of opposed, concentric hooks depicting the ribs,
surrounding a central element representing the heart.
Despite the common losses at the central ribs, this stunning yipwon displays a powerful and
menacing presence. The head, with its slight parietal protuberance, is particularly impressive.
And the features of the face are clearly discernable despite erosion. The frowning superciliary
arch and the howling mouth giving a truly haunting expression to this very archaic example.
A comparable yipwon figure is in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, B98.1062.