Spirit Figure from a Sacred Flute, Biwat, Yuat River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
- wood, rainbow abalone, cowrie shell
Irene Lim-Reid, Singapore, before 1992
François Coppens, Sint Niklaas, acquired from the above
Private Collection, Brussels, acquired from the above
Dirk Smidt notes that "the Biwat (who became widely known through Margaret Mead as the Mundugumor, the name given to them by neighbouring groups) have developed strong sculptural shapes, like the gable finials with sculptured human figures in knee-elbow posture, masks, and [anthropomorphic, like the offered lot] flute stoppers. These last-named are thought by the Biwat themselves to be their most important, and sacred objects. They were the crowns of the long bamboo flutes (aiyang), and their voices were heard when the flutes were blown, after the stoppers were removed. Their social, ceremonial, and religious significance was tremendous. They were considered to be 'the children of the mother crocodile spirit' (asin), a powerful being, that performed creative deeds in primeval times, and let the initiates be reborn by symbolically swallowing and throwing out the candidates. Via scarification tattooing, in the past performed with animal teeth [...], the initiates were 'bitten' by the crocodile, by which procedure the strength of the crocodile was transmitted to the initiates. [...]" (Smidt in Kooten and Heuvel, eds., Sculptuur uit Afrika en Oceanië, Otterlo, 1990, pp. 245-246).
According to Terri Sowell, a distinctive feature of the Biwat's initiation rites was that in contrast with other Sepik groups "both girls and boys were initiated and gained the right of access to sacred objects and beliefs" (Sowell cited in Friede et al., New Guinea Art: Masterpieces of the Jolika Collection of Marcia and John Friede, San Francisco, 2006, Vol. 2, p. 104). Smidt notes that the girls' "involvement was understandable. The symbolic value of [a aiyang] flute was nearly as high as the value of a woman. A man who wanted to marry but had no sister to compensate the group who gave the bride, could only satisfy the family of the bride, after he had resorted to kidnapping his beloved, by offering a sacred flute, indeed symbolic of the strength and riches of his own group." (Smidt in Kooten and Heuvel, eds., ibid.).
Eddy A. Hof (1914 - 2001) acquired items for his significant collection of Oceanic art from the beginning of the 1950s onwards, primarily from Dutch missionaries who had stayed in New Guinea. See Sotheby's, Paris, June 11, 2008, lot 58, for another flute stopper from his collection.