Figure (Yipwon), 19th century or earlier
Yimam people, Korewori River, Middle Sepik region, Papua New Guinea
Wood; H. 86 in. (218.4 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965 (1978.412.854)
Kept within the men's ceremonial house, the distinctive hook figures (yipwon) of the Yimam people of the Korewori River region in northeast New Guinea formerly played a central role in hunting and warfare. Depicting powerful spirits, the images served as vessels into which the spirits were called before a hunt or raid and presented with offerings. The yipwon then went forth during the night to slay the souls of the game or human enemies, enabling the men to easily kill the actual animals or enemies the following day. If a yipwon was successful, the men showed their gratitude by offering it a portion of the game or smearing it with the victims' blood. If it failed, the figure was neglected or discarded.
Local oral tradition describes the origin of these distinctive images. During the primordial creation period, the sun, who formerly lived on earth, first carved a slit gong (a large musical instrument). As he did so, the chips of wood from the slit gong came to life as yipwon spirits, who lived with him in the men's ceremonial house. One day, when the sun was away, the spirits killed one of his male relatives and danced around his body. Hearing the noise, the sun's mother, the moon, turned around and saw what the yipwon had done. Terrified at being caught, the yipwon fled into the ceremonial house, where they stretched themselves out against the back wall, turning into wood images. Enraged by their act, the sun ascended into the sky, leaving the yipwon on earth to serve as patron spirits of hunting and warfare.
Yipwon images portray both external and internal features of the spirits. Although highly stylized, the head and single leg appear relatively naturalistic in comparison with the central section of the body, which consists of a series of opposed, concentric hooks depicting the ribs, surrounding a central element representing the heart.