Almost resembling a funky dancer expressing himself in the light of the disco ball, perplexed and surprised by his own moves, we were amused to learn that this little fella is actually connected to the afterlife of the Enga people of Papua New Guinea in Oceania. His name is Yupini.
Collected by Jens Bjerre in 1961, Yupini is said to be the physical manifestation of the central ancestral spirit of a given village, a figure feared and respected for his control over the local environment. Natural phenomena such as earthquakes, thunder, crop failure, landslides and epidemics of disease are regarded as signs of Yupini’s anger, hunger or restlessness, and to restore his happiness, the figure is not shy in his luxurious demands. For him to keep natural disasters at bay, Yupini likes to indulge in the likes of human pleasures, such as fat and meat from the best slaughtered pigs – and also, he enjoys being provided with a so-called “female stone” with a hole in the middle during night-time. No wonder he is dancing!
Jens Bjerre experienced Yupini as surrounded by a great sense of secrecy, and recalls being regarded as the first white man to ever see the mystical figure, otherwise taboo for women and children of the village as well. Only the medicine men knew about the construction of Yupini, his whereabouts as well as the specifics of the rituals surrounding the worship of him, and as such only the most powerful were to interact directly with Yupini.
How Jens Bjerre managed to convince Yupini to accompany him on a trip back to the ethnographic collections of Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, we are not exactly sure. But we know it involved providing the local medicine man with enough pigs for him to be able to afford a new wife.
You can visit Yupini in the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead” at Moesgaard Museum.
// Ciara Coogan
Bjerre, Jens (2006/2007): Forsvundne Verdner
Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.
Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck, lbmfotografi.wix.com
I’m writing from Sydney, Australia. I’d like to know whether you have a place/village noted in Bjerre’s field notes as to where he actually acquired your so-called ‘yupini’. I am doubtful that this is a ‘yupini’ from the highlands, but more likely a woven figure from the Iatmul people of the Sepik River, which is where I believe Bjerre spent most of his time in 1961. I would be very interested in any information you could give me.
Curator, Australian & Pacific Art
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Further to my note, I strongly believe that it is possible you have another figure in your collection which is the actual yupini collected by Bjerre, of which there is a line drawing in the following article:
Neich, Roger. ‘Basketwork fertility figures form the Western Enga and nearby groups, Western and Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea’, National Museum of New Zealand Records, vol 1 no 2, 1975, pp 33-62.
The accession number cited for that figure is I.6163
You will see the yupini figures in the article (there are three in the AGNSW collection) are quite different from the figure in your post.
I have shown the image in your post to several of my colleagues in Australia, and they also believe it might possibly be from Kaminambit village on the Sepik River, or nearby, not from the Highlands.
Hi Natalie! Thanks so much for your inputs 🙂 we’ve forwarded your comments to some of the experts at the museum, who will get back to you as soon as possible. It’s quite interesting and we’re really happy that the blog can be used for this kind of knowledge sharing.
All the best
Emma Louise Pedersen
One of our collection experts is asking for an email to contact you through – could you write it here, or email it to me on firstname.lastname@example.org
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