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Sawos people East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Kipma tagwa [ancestor hook] mid to late 19th Century Place made: Torembi Village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, patina wood, shell, patina
Dimensions: 104.5 h x 60.0 w x 4.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2013
Accession No: NGA 2014.683

Samban is the name given to wonderfully sculptural suspension hooks along the Sepik River. Often carved in the form of a human or spirit figure, their purpose ranges from domestic to religious. The most commonly encountered are anchor-like in form, and string bags filled with food, precious items and sleeping babies are hung upon them out of harm’s way.

This work is one of a small handful of more significant ancestral hook figures of the Sawos people, and was likely made during the mid to late nineteenth century as the artist used only non-metal tools (stone adze blades, rat and cuscus incisors) to create it. Sculpturally, it is the work of a master carver who understood the visual power of giving the head a slight tilt to one side. The simple yet graphic realisation of the wrist carpals, navel and ankles are characteristic of pre-contact Sawos art.

The female figure is a powerful type of spirit often known as Waken, who is encapsulated within a framework of seemingly abstract forms. The curvilinear designs couple with an openwork section before becoming two hornbill birds; all of which contribute to the cosmological conception of mythical identity for the Sawos people. Directly below the ancestral figure are two hooks, believed to be for the suspension of human heads taken in tribal warfare. These and other offerings would be ritually given, or rather, ‘fed’ to the Waken spirit, to ensure good relationships with the ancestor spirit and garner its aid, especially in times of hardship or political turmoil.

The Waken figure perhaps depicts a primordial ancestor, shown with her hands clasping drawn up knees in the act of giving birth. Considering the positioning of the hooks for the placement of skulls, we are left to contemplate whether the myth associated with this impressive sculpture is about the creation of life or the creation of death.

Crispin Howarth Curator, Pacific Art


in artonview, issue 79, Spring 2014

This particular work is one of a small handful of significant ancestral hook figures of the Sawos people. It has the personal name of Kipma tagwa.
Once the property of the Nyaminaba clan of Torembi village, it was placed high up in the rafters of the ceremonial house tied to one of the main house posts. Kipma tagwa was likely made during the mid to late nineteenth century as only non-metal tools have been used to create the figure.
Sculpturally, it is the work of an accomplished master carver who understood the visual power of giving the head a slight tilt to one side. The simple yet graphic realisation of the wrist carpals, navel and ankles are characteristic of pre-contact Sawos art.

The female figure is a powerful type of spirit who is encapsulated within a framework of seemingly abstract forms. The curvilinear designs couple with an openwork section before becoming two hornbill birds, all of which contribute to a cosmological conception of mythical identity. On this framework are two hooks directly below the ancestral figure believed to be for the suspension of human heads taken in tribal warfare. These and other offerings would be ritually given, or rather ‘fed’, to the spirit to ensure good relationships with the ancestor spirit Kipma tagwa and garner its aid, especially in times of hardship or political turmoil.

Kipma tagwa depicts a primordial female ancestor whose name refers to the earth or ground, and is shown with her hands clasping drawn up knees in the act of giving birth. Considering the positioning of the two hooks for the placement of skulls, we are left to contemplate whether the myths associated with this impressive sculpture are about the creation of life, or the creation of death, for members of the Sawos community.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2015

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