Hohau Ancestral board

Production date
Papua New Guinea
Gulf of Papua New Guinea
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Object detail

HOHAU - elliptical wooden board painted black , white and red. For ceremonial use.
Production date
H975 x W250 mm
Media/Materials description
History and use
The figure on this board depicts a spirit (imunu) known to the Elema people, who live on the long coast of Orokolo Bay in the Gulf of Papua New Guinea. Each board (hohao) is created as the dwelling place of an individual imunu upon whose image is carved upon the board. Each imunu was associated with a specific feature of the landscape, river or sea and closely linked to the clan within whose lands or waters it dwelt. By rendering particular clan images, local carvers were able to attract their imunu to live in the boards, allowing their physical manifestation to be brought into the men’s longhouse. Massed together within this structure, the hohao, alongside other objects, gazed upon the living men below, their supernatural powers ensuring the ongoing fertility and prosperity of the clan and its continuing success in war.

The highly stylised ancestral board was usually carved from various hardwood species. Black from charcoal, red from clay and white from clay or powdered lime colour the recessed areas, accentuating the raised linear detail. However, most boards collected during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E221, began as dugout canoes.

The most obvious feature of the hohao, is the face staring out at the viewer. Nearly all boards in the Papuan Gulf share a common feature: a black skullcap that dips down at the temple between the eyes as a widow’s peak. Village elders across the Gulf identify this part of the image as the forehead of men who, during colonial times, shaved the hair above the forehead. On most boards the nose then emerges from the centre of this blackened forehead, sometimes protruding above the flat plane of the board.

A second key feature of the hohao is its highly stylised body with emphasized symmetry around the vertical axis. Regardless of design, they generally depict the structure of a imunu’s body according to the carver. However, the most important feature of the hohao is the navel, a design element that animates the figure as well as the board itself.

In many boards the torso as a whole is apparently unimportant, because it is reduced to only a navel inside some simple decorative element. Seen as a commodity in recent years, these boards typically lack a navel, as carvers have no desire for spirits to inhabit them.
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