Hohao (spirit board)

Hohao (spirit board)

Height: 129.000 cm
Width: 32.000 cm

Gift of Dr W. M. Strong

AOA Ethno 1914.Oc4-18.42

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This hohao, or spirit board, was carved some time during the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century. It was made by an Elema man from the Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea.

The hohao is a flat piece of wood, the main part shaped rather like an ironing board, tapering to a point at the bottom, with the addition of a circle carved out on top. It measures 129 centimetres from the top of the circle to the tip of the board, and 32 centimetres wide at its widest point.

The artist has carved a male figure onto the board, his face contained within the circle at the top. The figure is shown in three colours; the natural deep brown of the wood, a red stain made from clay, and a pale creamy-white lime-wash. The face is surmounted by a crest of jagged lines cut into the wood, representing a headdress. The eyes are brown, elongated at the outer edges, with white pupils. They are separated by a vertical line for a nose and set on a white background. The rest of the face is stained red. The mouth is curved upward in a cheerful smile, showing rows of sharp white teeth between brown lips.

The body is carved in shallow relief onto a white background. The figure's shoulders span the widest part of the board, a simple horizontal line with spindly arms dangling from the outer edges. The elbow joints are knobbly, and the arms end in small four-fingered hands. The figure's brown torso is slightly longer than in life and is curved gently outward at the waist, making him look slightly tubby.

His legs are short, and are carved as if seen from the side rather than the front, the right leg slightly longer than the left. Like the elbow joints, the knee joints are knobbly; the calves bulge, and the feet are small and four-toed. One knee is raised slightly higher than the other - suggesting movement. The figure is perhaps dancing.

The decorations of a ceremonial dance have been carved onto his body. A white crescent-shaped necklace rests on his chest. His navel is a series of four concentric circles, like an archery target, in white, red and brown. Around his hips is a belt with red edging and two rows of white serrated teeth as decoration; hanging from the belt is a narrow strip of bark cloth, which covers his penis wrapper. In life, the necklace would have been made from pearl shell, the belt from bark.

To each side of the figure, just below his hands, is a decorated rectangle about 10 centimetres high and 6 centimetres wide. Each has four V-shaped marks in white and red incised onto a brown background.

Spirit boards were carved and painted by Elema men, and kept inside their ceremonial houses. 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.

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, perhaps the name of a forest spirit or an heroic ancestor.