Spirit board kwoi or gope


In the Papuan Gulf region, the primary focus of traditional religious and artistic life rested on powerful spirits known as imunu. Each imunu typically was associated with a specific location in the landscape, rivers, or sea, and was linked to the specific clan whose territory encompassed that location. The peoples of the region represented and revered the imunu through the creation of spirit boards (gope), two-dimensional carvings featuring figures and designs carved in low relief and colored with ochre and pigment. Each served as a dwelling place for an individual imunu, whose image appears on it.

Gope were installed in clan shrines inside huge, peak-roofed men's houses called ravi, where ceremonial objects were kept safe and hidden from the uninitiated. Accompanied by figures, skull racks, and other sacred objects connected to a clan’s imunu, gope helped to guard their clanspeople from harm and aided them in headhunting and warfare, offering concealment and weakening enemies in advance of a raid.
The present gope shows a tapered, diamond-shaped silhouette, a somewhat atypical form that stands apart from the ovular or eye-shaped compositions more commonly seen in this carving tradition. Carved in low relief, the surface designs are brought out brilliantly by a strong contrast of well-preserved white and dark ochres. A hypnotic power lies in the gaze of the imunu, whose abstracted face peers out from the center of the board, connecting at its sides to the snake-like borders. Its strong horizontal thrust, pressing out to the limits of the diamond frame at its widest point, conjures an impression of the spirit pushing through a fissure from another plane.

Virginia Lee-Webb: Embodied Spirits: Gope Boards from the Papuan Gulf  illustrated on p. 169

First half 20th century
Wood, pigments
Height: 35 in

Alex Phillips, Melbourne
Pierre Moos, Paris
Alex Arthur, Brussels
Private Collection, New York

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