Papuan Gulf Spirit Board - Papua New Guinea

In the Papuan Gulf region, the primary focus of traditional religious and artistic life was on powerful spirits known as imunu. Each imunu typically was associated with a specific location in the landscape, rivers, or sea, and was linked to the specific clan whose territory encompassed that location. The peoples of the region represented and revered the imunu through the creation of spirit boards (gope), two-dimensional carvings featuring figures and designs carved in low relief and colored with ochre and pigment. Each served as a dwelling place for an individual imunu, whose image appears on it. 

Villages formerly had huge, communal, peak-roofed men's houses called ravi, where ceremonial clan objects were kept safe and hidden from the uninitiated. The men’s house was divided into cubicles allotted to a particular clan or sub-clan, each of which contained a clan shrine, which housed gope, figures, skull racks, human and animal skulls, and other sacred objects associated with the clan's various imunu. Gope helped to guard their clanspeople from harm and aided them in headhunting and warfare, offering concealment and weakening enemies in advance of a raid.

This fine gope shows a typically slim, ovular silhouette, pinched toward the top to define a head with smiling face and wide eyes. The designs of the face form the origin point of a cascade of sinuous, interconnected hook motifs that flow and bend and coil across the surface of the board. Highlighted on the dark wood with white ochre, the floating, ghostly designs form a mesmerizing dance that balances symmetry with organic variation and vividly evokes the spiritual power of the imunu within.

Late 19th century
Wood, natural pigments
51 3/8” h
- Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright Collection, New York

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