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The Sepik River snakes in broad, meandering coils for over 650 miles (1,100 km) before emptying into the Bismark Sea. It is New Guinea's equivalent of the Amazon and the Congo rivers.
There are mask-making villages all along the Sepik, but the middle river is the most densely populated with over 25 large villages of the Iatmul language group people between Moim and Pagwi. Tambanum is the largest, others include Timbunke, Angriman, Mindinbit, Kamanimbit, Kanganaman, Palimbei, Yentchan, Korogo and Kandingai.
Recent research by the National Museum and drilling by oil companies indicates that during the Ice Ages the Sepik-Ramu River Basin was an inland saltwater sea. With the ongoing tectonic uplift of the island and the erosion of the highlands, the basin filled in and the people living there made the shift from a saltwater to a freshwater culture. During the yearly wet season, the Sepik River and the Ramu River floodplains join together in the old sea basin.
The river villagers keep small gardens and the women fish. They trade fish to the inland Sawos people for sago flour, the starchy pith of the sago palm, which is the main staple of the Sepik diet. There is a small cash economy along the Sepik and the people sell fish, as well as carvings for cash. The middle Sepiks have a common ancestry, but each village is independent and this is reflected in their art, including their masks. Every village carves in a distinctive style.
The men carve masks from soft woods, although some types are made of clay over-modeled onto turtle or coconut shell. They mix paints from earth pigments and charcoal. The masks are decorated with shells, pig tusks, and cassowary feathers.
Few masks are worn directly over the face, which explains the lack of holes for eyes. Some are fastened onto a large cone-shaped wicker framework for a dance costume called a tumbuan. Raffia is knotted into the bottom hoop for skirting and flowers, fruit and leaves added on for color and power at the time of the ceremony. Other masks are made only for display, most often in the men's Haus, to attract powerful and useful spirits.
The individual elements of the masks are complex, beyond the scope of this article. They often refer directly or indirectly to ancestor or clan spirits and totems such as pig, cassowary (muruk), crocodile (pukpuk), eagle (taragau), or a water and bush bird (saun). There are many different types of masks for different purposes.
A savi mask is about power, including the power to counter black magic. All savi have their tongues stuck out as a sign of aggression towards enemies of their clan. In the men's ceremonial Haus Tambarans, the orator's stools are savis and also many of the gable masks, as savis are at the top of the power structure. Savis do not need to be danced to bring power, just gathering them is enough. Only certain powerful men may lower the savi tumbuans from their storage position in the Haus Tambanum.
Mai (or mwai) masks, represented as pairs of mythical brothers and sisters, are the teachers in the young men's initiation ceremonies. Mai masks represent the spirits of totemic names. Names are very sacred in PNG. No one actually says anyone's real name, including their own, for fear of drawing the attention of bad spirits or sorcerers. During initiations, the elder who wears the mai mask becomes a spirit teacher who may say the important totemic names without evoking personal risk. He tells and calls out names for use in magic, for healing and for other spiritual uses. These names number in the thousands and only powerful men have this knowledge.
If a village or clan has a lot of bad luck, such as many deaths, the whole group may change their names and buy the rights to use masks from another clan in different village in an attempt to fool the bad spirits or sorcerers. The resulting masks usually display characteristics of both groups.
Masks may be disposed of when they no longer seem to have power. Although many Sepiks are nominally Christian, masks may also be sold or destroyed when Christianity becomes stronger in a village or clan.
A sevi mask represents beings who are at a lower level than the savis, more on the level of the Christian saints. Often the "tongue" is the owner or carver's clan totem.
A tumbuna mask represents an actual, often recent, ancestor. The Mindinbit tumbuna mask has savi style eyes, so the ancestor must have been considered a powerful person.
Turtle masks represents hunting spirits. A man wants a lot of them around before he goes hunting. The hunter spits red betel nut (buai) juice on them to increase his luck. He keeps them in the men's Haus Boi or at his home depending on the village.
This is a contemporary "dream" mask from Tambanum's saun clan. The story is that a man recently dreamed this mask and until he carved it, its spirit constantly pursued him and made him do "all kinds of bad things" like sleep with his neighbor's wife, kick another man in an argument and so on. All of which were conveniently blamed on the pursuing spirit.
Carving a new, dreamed image is not done lightly. Besides the worry over the potentially dangerous power of its spirit, the carver must give a party for the finished piece. This can cost a lot of money and if he sells the carving, the price must reflect the cost of the party.
SEE ALSO: Guide to Sepik River Carvings - links to villages for more photos of their carvings and masks
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/