Lot 117
  • 117

Spirit Figure from a Sacred Flute, Biwat, Yuat River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

100,000 - 150,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, rainbow abalone, cowrie shell


Eddy Hof, the Hague
Irene Lim-Reid, Singapore, before 1992
François Coppens, Sint Niklaas, acquired from the above
Private Collection, Brussels, acquired from the above


Lionel Morley, The Essence of Tribal Arts: African, East Malaysian, Indonesian, and Oceanic, Singapore, 1992, cover

Catalogue Note

Among the most iconic genres of Melanesian art, wusear are male spirit figures that were placed on top of the sacred flutes of the Biwat people on the shores of the middle Yuat River, a side-arm of the Lower Sepik River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Meyer considers the Biwat's depiction of the human figure to be "the most powerful and most aggressive of all the art styles of New Guinea" (Meyer, Oceanic Art, Bonn, 1995, p. 211), and the present wusear is a powerful illustration of this ferocious aspect of Biwat sculpture. Wusear are often called "flute stoppers", but this is somewhat misleading, insofar as that it reduces these effigies to a largely decorative function. In fact, wusear were effigies who "spoke" through the flute, and it is more appropriate to interpret the flute as part of the wusear than vice-versa.

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.