The sculpture presents an abstract representation of the human figure that is made by the Yimam cultures of Papua New Guinea. The figure consists of several parts: The top of the figure is the abstracted form of a bird, and there are ridges that look like ruffled feathers on top of the bird’s back. The next part is a human male face with a domed head and eye and a semi-circular ear on each side, a long narrow nose with wide square nostrils, and a mouth puckered as if whistling. A protruding ridge runs from the top of the head and continues down to the chin, apparently indicating a beard. Underneath the face is a curved hook that represents the figure’s arms; these are raised up and appear to be stroking the figure’s beard. Below this, seven protruding hook shapes represent ribs, and an asymmetrical diamond shape inside the hooks represents the heart. Finally, the form at the bottom of the sculpture indicates the legs and feet.
Oral stories from the Yimam culture state that this figure represents the hunting spirit in human form. Yipwon spirits are said to be the children of the Sun who live in men’s ceremonial houses and who are excited about the prospect of hunts and wars. In one story of the Yipwon, the Sun is an ancestral hero who carved a musical instrument called a Kabribuk, a great slit drum or gong. The twigs and chips discarded in the carving of the Kabribuk turned into the Yipwon spirits. When a relative of the Sun came to see the slit drum, having heard that it played wonderful music, the Sun was away hunting and left the Yipwon spirits alone in their village. The Yipwon lured the Sun’s relative into a trap and killed him, danced around the body, and drank its blood. Meanwhile, the Moon was in a tree nearby, playing with the leaves. She heard the ruckus from the spirits, looked, and discovered their evil act. The spirits, greatly afraid, fled into the men’s ceremonial house and stood against the back wall, stretching upward and trying to look innocent. They then transformed into lifeless wooden sculptures, and this is how the Yipwon look today.
The Yipwon sculptures are traditionally believed to have brought luck for hunts and raids to Yimam hunters. To prepare for a raid, each man who is most closely associated with a Yipwon sculpture would perform a service to coax the spirit into the figure, activating sculpture. Once the Yipwon entered the figure, the man would be believed to become possessed by the spirit, and the spirit would speak through the man to let the fighters and hunters know if it was pleased with their plans. If so, the spirit would travel to the head of the raid to the targeted village and kill the souls of the people who were to die in the raid, and which made their bodies easier to kill. If an attack or hunt were successful, the Yipwon figures would be rewarded: The Yimam men would smear the victim’s blood and entrails on the figure. Yipwon figures that did not prove useful, however, would be neglected or even discarded.
For more information, you may contact the researcher(s) noted in the title of this exhibit entry, or Dr. Billie Follensbee, the professor of the course, at BillieFollensbee@MissouriState.edu