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Korewori River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea Melanesia

Yipwon Early to mid 20th Century Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, patinas
Dimensions: 151.0 h x 5.0 w x 18.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2011
Accession No: NGA 2011.950


  • The Korewori River is a remote tributary flowing from the south into the Sepik River of Papua New Guinea. Even today, this rugged area of dense bush and marshland is seldom visited by outsiders. The Yimam people who live in this region have conceptualised a most extraordinary abstraction of the human form known as Yipwon.

    This recently acquired Yipwon displays a bold reduction into a two dimensional plane. While the head and feet of the sculpture are apparent, the body is, upon first sight, equally striking and puzzling. Poised upon a single leg with dipped foot, the body of the Yipwon consists of opposing curved hook shapes around a central protrusion. The hooks and central section have been interpreted in many ways: as the heart or soul of the Yipwon protected by ribs, as a cosmological device of stars around the sun or moon and even as the beaks of birds.

    One creation story for the Yimam people relates to the origins of Yipwon. Sun, an ancestral hero, carved a great slit drum called Kabribuk and from its discarded splinters sprang to life, forming the Yipwon. They were considered to be the children of Sun and lived in the mens’ cult house. Their nature was described as demonic and they were constantly eager for the hunt and for war.

    One day, a relative of Sun came to see the great slit drum but Sun was away hunting, leaving the Yipwon spirits alone in the village. The Yipwon lured Sun’s relative into a trap and killed him. They danced around the body, drank its blood and cut it into pieces. When their murderous act was uncovered, they fled into the mens’ cult house. Becoming stiff with fear, they transformed into lifeless wooden sculptures. Since then, the spirits of the Yipwon need to be ritually coaxed into their wooden bodies again to help with hunting and warfare.

    Yipwon were kept propped upright at the back of the mens’ cult house and, when needed, offerings were ritually applied: small pieces of meat from game animals, herbs, lime, saliva and even blood drawn from a hunter’s or warrior’s body. These applications are evident in the textured surface of the Gallery’s Yipwon.

    The finesse of Yipwon places them among the greatest sculptures from Melanesia. However, this is only one of a group of six ‘hook figures’ recently acquired, including four Garra hook forms from the neighbouring Bahinemo people and an impressively tall and ancient Aripa figure from the Inyai-Ewa people, which was preserved in a jungle cave. Hook figures have not been made for cultural purposes for a number of decades and the majority were collected en masse during the 1960s. They created a sensation among artists and collectors in the United States of America and in Europe. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, David Smith and especially Australian Tony Tuckson all encountered and found inspiration in the otherworldly qualities of New Guinean sculpture. Considering their rarity, the National Gallery has been fortunate enough to acquire this remarkable group.

    Crispin Howarth
    Curator, Pacific Arts

    in artonview, issue 68, summer 2011