Spirit board "hohao", 19th / early 20th century
Papua New Guinea - Gulf, Elema people
|Old UK Collection
Berry de Bruijn, Breda, The Netherlands
|H: 46.1 inch||sold|
The central spirit figure design carved in shallow relief indicates that this board was carved with stone or shell tools.
Overall style is typical of the Elema and similar to other boards collected in the first quarter of the 20th century (cf. Webb, 2015, pp. 109 - 113).
The spirit boards are commonly known as "gope" boards. Depending on the Gulf region they come from, the ancestral boards have different names. Among the Elema they are called "hohao", in the Purari Delta "kwoi" and further west "kaiamuni".
The painting of the carved boards with red ochre confered "heat", menace, or dangerous power "imunu" on these objects, and the addition of skulls, and age itself increased "imunu".
There has been some question as to what the boards actually represent. Douglas Newton noted that the "boards have individual names after ancestors or places" (Newton, 1961, p. 16). Be they ancestral or bush spirits, the gope nonetheless represent spirits.
The "gope" had many functions and were of great magical significance. They are said to have been important for warfare. It was told that the spirit of such boards would go into battle with the men who whorshipped it - both protecting them and causing confusion amongst the enemy. Furtheron the magical powers still had relevance to successful hunting. According to local reports, the hunters had their weapons blessed by the "gope". The "gope" had the power to make wild pigs "weak", so that they fell easy prey to the hunter. According to Newton, the "gope" had a protective function, warding off sickness and other evils.
Together with other sacred objects they were kept in large communal men's houses divided into cubicles, each allotted to a particular clan or subclan.