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Sawos people East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Wundjumbu [spirit face from a ceremonial house post] 19th century Description: Architectural feature from a Spirit House [Haus Tambaran]
Place made: Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, figurines, Garamut wood wood
Dimensions: 145.0 h x 44.0 w x 27.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Margaret and Michael Cockburn and Family
Accession No: NGA 2007.379

The villages of the Iatmul people have at their centre the famous ngeko ceremonial houses, which act as the keeping place of ritual objects essential to the wellbeing of the community. Each of its posts is elaborately carved from exceptionally heavy and dense ironwood. [1] According to oral history, when the central pillars of a new ceremonial house were to be erected, recently acquired human heads were placed in the post-hole as a way to ensure the building’s spiritual power. [2]

This spirit face, Wundjumbu, is only the upper section of a house post and is exceptionally weathered, suggesting it is of great antiquity. Close inspection indicates it was produced without the use of metal tools. Its style suggests it may have come from the Sawos people rather than the Iatmul people. The post was acquired by District Officer Michael Cockburn in the early 1960s after he saw it lying in tall grass near the Maprik village airstrip. Cockburn only discovered the post because an Abelam villager was chopping at it for use as firewood. It is believed to have been discarded at the airstrip by the American art collector and geologist George Kennedy due to size and weight restrictions on air cargo. [3]

This story reflects changing attitudes to traditional arts by New Guineans, although in this instance the house post was from an unrelated community so it would not have been treated with the same reverence, and the Abelam villager involved may have been Christian, giving another justification to re-purpose the object. It also gives a sense of the number of art objects being exported from the Sepik region in the mid twentieth century.

[1] Jendraschek 2012 p 544 gives the general term Kwali’k for house posts.
[2] Coiffier 2014 p 45.
[3] Cockburn, pers comm, February 2007.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2015

From: Crispin Howarth Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015