British Museum collections, £12.99
Height: 129.000 cm
Width: 32.000 cm
Gift of Dr W. M. Strong
AOA Ethno 1914.Oc4-18.42
Africa, Oceania, Americas
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Hohao (spirit board)
Elema people, late 19th/early 20th century
From the Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea
The figure on this carved and painted board depicts a forest spirit known to the Elema people, who live on the long coast of Orokolo Bay in southern Papua New Guinea. The figure is dressed to dance, wearing a pearl shell crescent on his breast and a bark belt.
Elema men carved boards like this, called hohao, and kept them inside a men's ceremonial house. Although some hohao were merely decorative, others were made as a home for a forest spirit with which the maker had developed a particular relationship. Personal spirits helped the men have success in hunting.
Hohao like this one, depicting a whole human figure, are rare. This board almost certainly housed a spirit and would have had a personal name. The Elema considered the principal hohao in a men's ceremonial house to be highly sacred. They sometimes repainted the boards and presented them with offerings in order to keep the spirits in a good humour.
F.E. Williams, The drama of Orokolo: The soci (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969)
M. Young & J. Clark, Anthropologist in Papua: the p (Canberra, National Archives of Australia, 2001)