Gope, Ancestor or Spirit Boards
The object in the photograph is a gope, or spirit board (also called kwoi or hohao). This example is from Papua New Guinea near the Wapo Creek on the Gulf of Papua. Carved from an old canoe, this art form derives from the protective splashboard of the outrigger canoe, which was carved with a human face and was believed to have protective qualities. Human faces represent ancestors, and carving the boards was thought to provide a home for the protective spirit. Most gope boards have symmetrical, curved, linear designs, with recognizable faces and very stylized body parts. Gopes were made in different sizes, the largest being owned by the clan and stored out of sight in the men's longhouses. Smaller gope boards guarded entrances to clan sections of communal houses. Young, uninitiated men owned a third type of small gope. These were hung on the walls where young boys slept, believing it would protect them and help them to grow strong.
Photograph from the Tomkins Collection Spirit board, gope, Wapo Creek/Era River, 19th/20th century, wood and pigment, Accession # TC 515, Bruce Frank, New York 2009, Collected by Thomas Schultze-Westrum, (accessed March 26, 2010). Annotated by Susan Douglass.