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Carvings from the Papuan Gulf emphasis the human face, especially the eyes. Geometric designs with bilateral symmetry are incised into mostly 2-dimensional flat surfaces. Black from charcoal, red from clay and white from clay or powdered lime color the recessed areas, accentuating the raised linear detail.
Before Western contact, carvers used stone axes to cut the trees, sharp edges of mussel shells to smooth the boards and a shark's tooth to incise the lines. Some groups are reported to have used nails washed up from shipwrecks. Paint brushes were made from coconut fiber.
bull-roarers | ancestor/spirit boards | skull racks | figures | drums and other artifacts | map
Figure 1: Tall ancestor/spirit board with pierced nose and chevron design borders.
Bull-roarers are sacred musical instruments swung around on a rope to make a thundering sound. They were usually decorated only on the upper part. Similar short boards with overall carving are probably small ancestor boards.(1)
In the eastern Gulf among the Elema, they were considered the oldest sacred objects and kept hidden. In the Purari Delta, bull-roarers called imunu viki, meaning weeping imunu, were sounded by a special society when a chief died. Its select members were the only ones who could control the dangerous power.
Figure 2: Bull-roarer (kaiaimunu), possibly from the Era River area where large basketry creatures were kept in the men's houses. The bull-roarers were stored inside these creatures and were their voices.
In the western Fly River-Kiwai Island area, bull-roarers were hung in the men's ceremonial long houses. The Kiwai also had flat representations of human figures, mimia, which were taken in canoes during raids, their spirits going ahead to weaken enemy villages.
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Kiwai outrigger canoes had a protective splashboard called gope carved with a human face. The term gope is used in different areas of the Papuan Gulf to mean bull-roarers, ancestor boards, skull racks and human sacrifices.(2) Gope is commonly used outside of the Gulf to refer to all ancestor/spirit boards.
Figure 3: Large ancestor board with bold design.
While the Fly River Kiwai may have originated much of the shared culture in the Papuan Gulf, the Kerewa people on Goaribari Island became dominant. Their ceremonies involved more head-hunting and cannibalism. At one time, the Gulf of Papua was known as part of the Cannibal Coast.
Figure 4: Goaribari Island gope with characteristic widow's peak forehead and inverted red triangles below the eyes. The navel is also an important element.
Gopes were more important here than the rest of the Gulf, perhaps because the Kerewa did not have bull-roarers. Gopes were used to divine which village to raid and sent in advance like the Kiwai mimia figures.
The Kerewa made 3 types of gopes from old canoes:
Figure 5: Four small gope ancestor/spirit boards.
Ron bought on Urama Island in the 1970s for Village Arts, the government artifact shop, in Port Moresby. There were two men's longhouses. No women were allowed in them. The front verandas looked out in the direction of the Gulf. The longhouses were divided into cubicles for each group of men and hung with the clan's large gopes. Smaller gopes were kept at home.
Kwoi boards in the Purari Delta Namau villages are similar to gope. Figure 1 may be a Namau kwoi board.
Hohao are wooden boards with faces carved by the Elema people in the Eastern Gulf. Unnamed ones may have been only decorative. Hohao named for bush spirits or ancestor heroes were more powerful and could be evoked for hunting and war. Marupai, engraved dwarf coconut sorcerer's charms, were suspended from the hohao's noses.
Figure 6: Marupai amulet. These were owned by initiated men for help in hunting and fishing, to ward off sorcerer-caused illness or to help kill an enemy. Clan designs suggest the heads of flying fox, pig, crocodile or fish. Marupai were carried in small string bags with their heads sticking out. Other magic substances like aromatic barks or certain seeds were carried with them and fed to the marupai or chewed by the sorcerer.
Figure 7: Footed hohao board with finely incised figure still showing some of the lime detailing.
Carvers were older men who stayed home in the village. They charred the wood before carving, so the relief design stood out as they worked. Colors included a pink ochre traded from Kikori, local yellow and red clays, soapstone for grays and powdered white lime.
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Agiba skull holders in the form of stylized figures, sometimes male and female pairs, were displayed by the Kerewa around Goaribari Island. Human skulls decorated with seeds and shells and suspended by rattan or wooden loops through their noses were hung from the two upright prongs of the agibas.
Several hundred skulls could belong to a single clan's agiba. An old, powerful man repainted the agiba before a new skull was hung on it.
Figure 8: Agiba skull rack, probably from the Kerewa area.(3)
Similar carvings in the area hold skulls of birds, fish and animals. Small human figure carvings were sometimes displayed with the skulls. Substitute wood or gourd trophy heads are also used.
Figure 9: Gourd trophy head with wood nose and a rattan hanging loop.
Figure 10: Wood trophy head detailed with white lime and red abrus seed eyes.
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Figure 11: Bioma detail of upper body with white lime accents. Full figure is over 3 feet (1 meter) tall.
The Wapo Creek, Urama Island and Era River people who live east of Goaribari Island in the central part of the Gulf had complex skull display areas. A single human skull was mounted on a grill hung with small figures called agiba. This was fronted with a row of gope boards, then a row of pig and crocodile skulls.
Each skull was straddled by a bioma, a smaller flat silhouette figure or a kakame, another type from a natural branch. The legs of the figures were inserted into the skull's eye sockets.
Figure 12: Small bioma with a coix seeds (Job's tears) necklace. The nose has multi-colored glass store beads pressed into tree resin. Pierced ears are tied with strips of red Chinese trade store cloth. The distended stomach is associated with head-hunting heros.
Figure 13: Kakame figure carved from a branch and dressed with a grass skirt.
Kakame figures are more 3-dimensional than biomas and are sometimes carved from tree branches. Similar figures are used as headrests and stools. These may represent bush spirits called umu.
Other figures and paired figures associated with cultural heroes and head-hunting were made in the Gulf. Ron has also collected tall ceremonial betel nut holders topped with a human face. Slots were carved in the shaft to insert the nuts.
Figure 14: Dog ilao carved from a forked tree branch. It has a deep patina from frequent use.(4)
Figure 15: Detail of dog. These figures created from forked branches are some of the most lively and inventive of New Guinea carvings.
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Hand drums (gama in Motu) are usually hourglass shaped. Their distinctive feature is a bottom end shaped like an open mouth. The carving around the mouth often represents stylized faces. Some drums have a carved handle. Others have a carrying strap. The mouth may represent the spirit of the singing drum.
Figure 16: Drum turned upside down to show characteristic mouth. It has a braided fiber carrying strap.
Bark belts incised with Papuan Gulf designs are worn by men during ceremonies along with cut shell jewelry. The belts were cut from the bark of young Kava trees. Other decorated items include combs and spoons.
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Map of the Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/