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.
Curator, Pacific Arts
in artonview, issue 68, summer 2011
The Yimam people, who live the near the source of the Blackwater River and the nearby Korewori River, are known for their distinctive one-legged sculptures called yipwon. Yipwon display a bold reduction of the human form into an almost two-dimensional plane. Poised on a single leg, they are remarkable for the conception of mass and void formed by the body of opposing curved hooks, which surround a central protrusion. This central element has been interpreted as the heart or soul of the yipwon protected by the hooked ribs, or as a cosmological device of stars around the moon or sun.
The mythological origin story for yipwon suggests that they were created from the discarded chips of wood left over by Sun, the original male ancestor of the community, while carving a garamut drum. These splinters of wood sprang to life becoming the yipwon spirit beings who wanted nothing more than to hunt and make war. One day a relative of Sun came to visit but he was away in the forest hunting. Seizing the opportunity, the yipwon spirits killed the visitor, danced around his body, drank his blood and cut him into pieces. When their murderous act was discovered they ran into the ceremonial house, became stiff with fright and transformed into lifeless wooden bodies.
These figures, or more specifically, the spirits that inhabited them, assisted in hunting and war. Each figure was carved for a named spirit being and would be kept at the back of the manm ceremonial house. The use of yipwon declined from the 1950s.
The yipwon were consulted before hunting pigs, cassowary or other animals and also for war expeditions. Ritual steps were taken to make the yipwon spirit enter the carved figure, making it ‘alive’ through offerings of magical herbs, lime, the men’s saliva and even their own blood (yat), all of which were applied or smeared onto the figure. It was believed that the spirit of the yipwon went ahead of the hunter or warrior and took their quarry’s spirit, making the pig, cassowary or human easy to be captured and slain. After a successful hunt, blood, meat and liver from the animal were given to the yipwon figure.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2015
From: Crispin Howarth Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015