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Basket yam masks are an essential part of the elaborate yam harvest ceremonies and festivals for the Abelam people of the East Sepik Province. Rituals associated with yams form the basis of the spiritual life of the Abelam.
Figure 1: Yam lining in the south Wosera, late 1980s.
The Abelam cultivate gardens of yams (mami in tok pisin) as their main staple crop. The yams can be stored for up to six months. They also grow beans, taro, bananas, tobacco, maize and sweet potatoes, as well as small cash crops of coffee, rubber and cocoa.
A population of over 40,000 people in this language group lives in the lower inland foothills of the Prince Alexander Mountains and down into the plains on the north side of the Middle Sepik River. The main road through this area goes to the towns of Maprik and Hayfield which are about 140 km from the coastal, provincial capital of Wewak. A side road from Hayfield branches down through the south Wosera to the Sepik River landing of Pagwi.
Unlike the stilt houses built above the flood plains of the Sepik, the Abelam village houses hug closer to the warmth of the earth. Their A-frame Haus Tambarans start low in the back and soar up to heights of 80 feet (27 meters) under the pitched, overhanging front with thick thatch roofs sweeping down to the ground.
The north Abelam foothill villages cultivate the low fertile slopes of the mountains. Their culture has been extensively documented, partly because of their spectacular Haus Tambarans and picturesque hamlets strung along the ridge lines of the hills. However, in recent years, most of the large Haus Tambarans have fallen and not been rebuilt.
Figures 2 and 3:Two typical basket yam masks.
The south Abelam or Woseras, occupy a region of kunai grasslands and small, muddy rivers with patches of sago palm swamp. The Wosera people build simpler Haus Tambarans. They have poorer soil, smaller yams and a reputation for being difficult which has discouraged researchers, with the exception of Noel McGuigan who did extensive doctoral research there in the 1970s and 1980s. However, this very tenacity has helped them retain significant parts of their pre-contact culture.
During Australian rule, patrol officers sometimes confiscated and burned all the village spears in an effort to subdue local quarrels. More recently, we were always told in Wewak and Maprik that the Woseras had taken all the planks off the bridges in their territory. Now, there's been little maintenance work in years and the bridges and roads are simply going back to bush.
Figure 4: Trellised mounds of yam vines beneath palm trees.
In both areas, new gardens are cleared and burned from the jungle. Sometimes terraced beds are built along the rivers. Digging sticks and special yam shovels with clan figures on top are used to prepare the deep, soft soil needed to grow yams. Sets are planted close to the surface and, as the eyes sprout, topsoil is mounded over the young shoots. The photo shows tall trellises covered with the lush vines of water tolerant asagwa yams (dioscorea esculenta).
At planting or at harvest time, some of the villages spin ceremonial tops carved from coconut shells. The concave surface is decorated with stylized flower and other geometric designs. Sometimes these are colored with clay pigments or school chalk. We were told in one village that tops are spun by opposing clans across a playing field in the plaza. Each side tries to knock off the other's tops while still keeping their own spinning. The side whose tops spin the farthest will have the longest vines and the biggest yams at harvest. When not in use, the short sticks are removed and the tops strung together on kanda vine and hung up in the eaves of the house. Similar tops used in a harvest ceremony are illustrated in fig. 48 in Margaret Mead's book on the Abelam's neighbors, the Mountain Arapesh.
Figure 5: Coconut shell tops with incised designs.
Figure 6: Yam decorated with basket mask and multiple woven and balsa wood fans.
A man's status is judged by his ability to grow ceremonial long yams (dioscorea alata). These yams grow up to 9-12 feet (3-4 meters) long. During the 5 month growing season, a man spends all of his time in the garden tending his best yams. The men observe food and sexual taboos and perform specific rituals to encourage the yams.
At the harvest yam festival, the best yams are prominently displayed in the plaza in front of the Haus Tambaran. The biggest ones are tied horizontally on long poles and leaned in rows along each side of the display area. There may be hundreds of other yams of all sizes presented in decorated mounds for viewing and distribution.
If a yam tuber grows straight, it is considered to be male; if it has protuberances, it is considered to be female. These yams are named as ancestral spirits (nggwal) and decorated with woven basket masks or fans, or with wooden masks and plaques. In addition, shell money, feathers including cassowary and the Lesser Bird of Paradise, bright flowers like the red hibiscus, small bright orange or green decorative fruits (mban), colorful leaves like the croton and ritual paint are added make the display more powerful.
Figure 7: Yam mask with red enamel paint.
A man does not keep his own long yams, but exchanges them with his traditional trading partner from another village. Whoever has the largest yams is considered to be the better man of the moment. The exchange creates ties between villages and clans and also shares the best breeding stock throughout the area. During the yam lining, which is a major social and ceremonial occasion, all the trading partners come in from their villages to the host village.
The village women prepare huge quantities of food for everyone. Yams are rather bland by Western tastes, but cooked in coconut milk with greens, they are nice. Pigs are killed and baked in pits with the number and size being shown off.
Sometimes other exchanges, displays of wealth such as shell money rings tied to the front of the Haus Tambaran, and settlement of debts takes place. The men conduct their secret ceremonies out of sight of the women and uninitiated children. Big Men wear valuable bilas: shell and pig tusk jewelry, karuts (woven figures worn as mouth pieces in battle or dance) and cassowary bone knives in their armbands.
Figure 8: Detail of basketry work in a yam fan.
Basket yam masks are woven by the men. They take a large grass and using their teeth, strip out the center. The pliable outer edges are used as weft to cover the foundation coils of the mask. Very complex 3-dimensional and filigreed shapes are formed. Most masks are painted with local clay pigments and natural dyes, although trade store enamel or acrylic paints, especially red, are occasionally used.
Figure 9: Yam mask decorated with feathers.
Contemporary material such as red labels from mackerel tins and the red and yellow cellophane Twisties bags are added for color. Once we collected a basket mask with a plastic doll's face stitched into it and sometimes Halloween masks from the trade stores are used. We've collected masks that had plastic rings woven in to accent the eyes and blue plastic string unraveled from rice bags and wrapped around the core fibers.
After a ceremony, the masks are hung up in the eaves of the house where soot from smoking fires blackens them. Before using them again, the men clean and repaint the masks with new, powerful color. Ironically, the Western market prefers the soot-colored "older" look as more authentic. When we plan to buy in a village, we have to tell the men not to wash and repaint the masks for us. They think this is a bit crazy, as they would not display dirty, soot -blackened masks themselves. A really old mask will have remanent layers of previous painting built up on it.
Several areas of the Maprik make large, finely woven, unpainted masks specifically to sell. These make nice presents for people who don't like tribal art, because they can just enjoy the excellent basket work.
Figure 10: Tall, elaborately woven yam mask.
Figure 11: Yam mask with parrot face.
Each local area has its own specific style. The variation of forms is endless and the basketry is beautiful and very complex. Turn a painted mask over and look at the work on the unpainted back to better appreciate the skill involved in forming the intricate shapes. More unusual types include parrot faces and masks with woven chains dangling from the bottom edge. Although some are made for sale, few tourists or dealers come into the area and most are made for village use. Basket yam masks are one of the more authentic ethnographic items from Papua New Guinea.
Next: three more photographs of a yam lining.
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