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Blackwater River Carvings, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

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[Mumeri Village long nose gable mask: 16k]

Figure 1: Wickerwork cane gable mask from Mumeri village.

Mumeri Village is near the junction of the Blackwater and the Korosameri Rivers. The Mumeri people came from the Sepik River, but have incorporated the typical long nose of the Blackwater tumbuans into this gable mask.

Gable masks are hung in peak of the exterior gable of the Haus Tambarans. Some are woven into the frame of the Haus itself. They range in size from 3 to 9 feet (1 to 3 meters).

[Basket hook with clan face on top, second face on the flat of the hook: 13k]

Figure 2: Suspension hook from Sangriman or Yesimbit Village

Farther up the Blackwater are Sangriman, Yesimbit and Tungimbit Villages. They sit back from the main channel of the river under the tree fringe edge of the jungle. In the dry season, the wide plain between the villages and the river is a hot mud flat cut only by narrow channels (barets) for small pole canoes. When these dry up, everyone has to walk out.

When we buy, carvings are carried and laid out along the top of the mud bank above the Blackwater. Families pitch plastic tarps from driftwood sticks for shade. Carvings are covered with palm fronds to keep them from cracking in the heat of the sun.

This little suspension hook has a human face with clan markings and possibly a catfish face on the hook. Small carvings from the Blackwater tend to be more detailed than similar ones from the Sepik. Hooks are hung from the ceilings to store food items away from rats in village houses. Ceremonial ones are used in the Haus Tambarans.

[Male and female Blackwater tumbuans: 16k]

Figure 3: Long nose tumbuans from Kabriman Village, Blackwater River. The male is called nario in tok ples (left) and the female is called nariofa. (right)(1)

These long nose tumbuans may represent water or bush spirits. They hang in the ceiling of the Haus Tambarans when not in use. They are not common and the female ones are unusual.

The wickerwork is painted with a thick coat of red clay, white lime and charcoal based pigments. Sometimes red or blue enamel paint is used. Tassels of cassowary, chicken and other feathers are added.

Different villages have slightly different styles; for example, many of the tumbuans from Kaningara Village have slit eyes and detailed curvilinear clan designs. Occasionally, the mask is woven down to form a full body costume.

[Map of the Blackwater River, ESP, PNG: 8k]

From The Seized Collections of the Papua New Guinea Museum, pp. 74-75: "Masks of this type are not complete without a skirt of sago fronds to conceal the dancer. Wickerwork masks with long noses represent male spirits associated with natural phenomena, like a stream, or animals, especially birds. They perform in pairs and are used during initiation ceremonies when the initiates receive their scarification marks.

There are also short nosed wickerwork masks and these represent female. The male masks appear to have skirts to the knee, while the female masks wear their skirts to the ankle (Personal communication from men of the ceremonial house Anyawiman of Kuvenmas village)."

[Kuvenmas Village gable mask: 17k]

Figure 4: Wooden gable-style mask from Kuvenmas Village, more than 3 feet (1 meter) high.

[Large Blackwater wanleg: 5k]

The Blackwater River originates from Kuvenmas Lake below Murder Mountain. Kuvenmas Village is the biggest village near the lake and has a bold, colorful style of carving. Their large wooden gable masks remind me of aggressive male figures in Japanese Kabuki prints.

Figure 5: One-leg (wanleg) figure about 12 feet (4 meters) tall, probably from the upper Blackwater around Kuvenmas Lake.

The concentric hooks on this wanleg may represent ribs and the central part, the heart. The style may have originated in the Karawari River area.

Story of Wanleg figures (as told by Michael Uliau of Kraimbit, collected by Helen Dennett) from Mak Bilong Sepik, "... a female ancestor close to death charged her son to carve a garamut drum from the tree that would spring from her grave. Four days after her death the son felled the massive tree that had appeared and made the first garamut.

"From the pieces of wood left over he fashioned wanleg figures. He was surprised to find that these were endowed with the powers of speech and movement. In war expeditions the figures, bounding along on their single legs, would precede the warriors to kill and sow confusion in the enemy village. They were of great assistance too in hunting. The wanleg used to live in the haus tambaran. One day an inquisitive woman climbed a tree close to the haus ... and saw the wanleg. She was killed ... but the wanlegs reverted to lifeless pieces of wood."

  • Basket Hooks shows a large hook with a full male figure and upper disk to keep rats away at the top, from Kabriman Village.
  • Spears and Atlatls shows 2 spear throwers from the Blackwater River.
  • Hunstein Mountains: other concentric-hook figures.
  • Karawari River Carvings: other concentric-hook figures and another version of the wanleg creation.
  • Middle Ramu River Carvings: other concentric-hook figures.
  • Books


    Diary entry, 1985: Blackwater River up to Kuvenmas Village

    Copyright Carolyn Leigh, 1999. All rights reserved.

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    More articles/photos of NEW GUINEA MASKS:

    Middle Sepik River | Angoram | Kambaramba | Tambanum | Hunstein | Imbando and Taway | Mumeri | Blackwater River | Lower Ramu River | Middle Ramu River | basket yam masks | wooden yam masks | Baining | Sulka | Tolai dukduk | Malagan | Papuan Gulf | Gogodala | String and Things | Skin as Ground... | more INDONESIAN MASKS: Bali and Java | Dyak

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    Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

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    Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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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