Posts Tagged 'mask'

Yam Mask by the Abelam People of Papua New Guinea

 

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Figure 1. Abelam Yam Mask, E/1974/04/003, Sam Noble Collection. Photo Courtesy of Sam Noble Museum of Natural History.

E/1972/04/003

Helmet Mask/ Yam Mask

Abelam

East Sepik, Papua New Guinea

Cane Reed, Natural Pigments

To say that yams play a large part of life for the Abelam people of Papua New Guinea would be an understatement. Yams play an integral part of connecting the Abelam people to their environment, community neighbors, and cultural celebrations. Not only does this crop serve as a food staple, the Abelam people observe a dedicated six month growing period for the tuber, with some yams measuring in at a whopping ten feet long!

yam-festival-at-kalabu-village

Figure 2: Abelam Community. Photo Credit Unknown.

 

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Figure 3. A Yam mask using a modern halloween mask.    Photo courtesy: Art-pacific.com

Tending to their yam gardens and growing the largest tuber possible is the sole focus of the men during the growing season. The growing season for yams typically begins in August and ends in February. For the months that mark the growing season, all warfare and fighting is stopped. Hunting and the butchering of animals is stopped, and even sexual activity is suspended until the end of the growing season. This is because the Abelam believe that their giant yams are aware beings that “have a sort of extrasensory perception.” Richard Scaglion, an ethnologist who worked closely with the tribe in the 1970s described the Abelams view of yams saying:

“They (the yams) can “feel” things. They appreciate tranquility and can perceive social discord. Various other things deemed as “hot” activities upset their serenity. Yams can “sense” an act of sexual intercourse because it is “hot.” Fighting is “hot.” The killing and butchering of animals is also “hot” so there is a taboo against these activities while yams are growing.” (1)

The six months dedicated to the growing of yams allows the men of the tribe to pause from their rivalries and pour their energies into growing the largest yam possible. The man who grows the largest yam is seen has having the most power. Each man traditionally gifts his prized yam to his rival, who is expected to deliver an even bigger yam the next year or face humiliation.

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Figure 4. Yams on display. Photo courtesy of art-pacific.com

Each community takes their turn displaying their yams proudly, a process which can take months of festivities. Each community demonstrates the fruits of their harvest, taking the largest yams and laying them vertically in long rows so that they can be viewed. Once the yams are ready for display they are decorated with a variety of colorful embellishments. These may include palms leaves, oranges, feathers, and shell money. However, the most important ornamentation is the yam mask itself, which is believed to imbue the yams with the spiritual power and knowledge of Abelam ancestors.

An Abelam “yam mask” ties together the importance of yams to Abelam cosmology and ancestry. Masks like the one seen in Figure 1 are created by the men of the tribe. This is done by stripping the pliable fibers from cane shoots. After carefully weaving the basket-like mask, natural paints and dyes are applied to the surface.  These days its possible to find variations from the traditional ornamentations. Moderns versions of the yam mask can include a variety of decorations. Labels repurposed from mackerel tins, as well as red and yellow cellophane “twisty ties” are now seen with some frequency in the decoration of yam masks.  Some even include store bought halloween masks, as seen in figure 3. Once the mask is completed, it is reused through many yam harvest celebrations.

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Figure 5. Yams on display. Photo courtesy of art-pacific.com

At the completion of the harvest festival, the masks are removed from their displays and hung in the eaves of their Abelam homes. Overtime, the burning hearths and fires within these dwellings darken the masks with soot. At the end of the growth season the men of the community remove these masks, carefully wash them and touch up the paint, returning the masks to their previous vibrancy.

This cyclical practice of re-using the masks in many ways mirrors the cyclical quality of the Abelam way of life. Through their devout focus on the growth and harvest cycle of the yams, they have also found a way to live in balance with their neighboring communities and the limited resources around them. By abstaining from sexual activity they control their population growth and guarantee new mothers a break from continuous pregnancies. By refraining from hunting and the butchering of animals they allow the wild pig populations around them to rebound and grow. By laying down weapons, they allow angers to cool. The best yams are allowed to sprout and are replanted, rooting not only next years crops, but each generation through a lineage of yam planting.

(Christina J. Naruszewicz)

 

1. Richard Scaglion. Abelam: Giant Yam and Cycles of Sex, Warfare and Ritual.  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 11.

References:

  • Arte Magical. “Yam Masks and Baba Masks: Ritual Masks from Papua New-Guinea”,  http://www.artemagical.nl/masks
  • Carolyn Leigh and Ron Perry. “Abelam Yam Masks and Tops” http://www.art-pacific.com/artifiacts/nuguinea/yanmasko.html
  • Scaglion, Richard. Abelam: Giant Yams and Cycles of Sex, Warfare and Ritual. In Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals. M. Ember and C. R. Ember (eds.), pp. 3-24. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993

 

Object: Maya Mask

Figure 1    Maya "Wolf" Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Maya “Wolf” Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

E/1992/3/8
Mask
Cakchiquel (Kakchiquel) Maya
Chimaltenango: San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala
Materials: Painted wood

This wooden face mask has been painted red, with green polka dots, black eyes, and black and white detail behind the ears. This particular mask shows a face with an open mouth displaying carved wooden teeth. The eyes of the mask have been made by carving holes and surrounding the eyes with black paint. The eyebrows are also painted black, and the ears are carved and painted just above the eyebrows. On the sides of the mask are wooden flaps painted black and white, a striking color difference from the mostly red background and spotted green on the rest of the mask. On the forehead of the mask, there is a small hole, probably for hanging the mask.

The mask is sized to fit on a human face. It is 8 ¾ inches long, 7 inches wide, and 4 ¼ inches thick. It was accessioned into the Sam Noble Museum’s Ethnology Collection with only a few scratches in the paint on the nose, forehead, and ears – overall, in good condition. When accessioned, it was determined that the animalistic features on the mask were meant to resemble a wolf. It seems like an unsuitable animal inspiration for the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala (where wolves are not native), possibly meaning that it takes its likeness from another predator.

Instead of a wolf, which does not live in the region this mask was made, the mask may actually be meant to resemble a jaguar. Jaguars have always had important significance to Maya culture, playing an integral role in the Maya creation story. Many successful Maya kings and leaders were known for having the same feline characteristics associated with the jaguar. The jaguar is often the symbol for life and fertility. It is also seen as existing outside of the human realm, giving it associations with the underworld. In the Chimaltenango region specifically, jaguars can be black or yellow with black spots. While the mask in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Museum is red with green spots, the jaguar seems like a more likely option for inspiration than the wolf.

In order to understand why these seemingly odd paint choices might have been made, it is useful to look at the significance of these colors in Maya culture. Traditionally, red and black were popular in Maya cave art. Red pigment was originally made from the red clay dirt found in or near the caves themselves. In ancient times, Maya temples were painted in red and white colors. The red, white, and black paint on this contemporary mask follow along with this long-standing tradition.

Without speaking directly to the artist, of course, the intentions and inspirations behind this particular mask cannot be known for certain. However, it seems safe to say the original identification of the mask as “wolf-like” is most likely incorrect. Because this mask follows Maya tradition in paint colors, it seems more likely that the artist chose the more traditional jaguar native to the Chimaltenango region to inspire this mask.

[Caitlin Doepfner]

More sources:

Fischer, Edward F., and R. McKenna Brown. 1996. Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press.

National Geographic. N.d. Jaquar: Panthera Onca. National Geographic. Accessed February 15, 2015.     http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/jaguar/

Lovgren, Stefan. 2004. Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished. National Geographic. Accessed June 16, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/0504_040505_mayamasks.html

 

 

Object: Samurai Face Mask

E/1949/2/2
Samurai Face Mask
Japan
1650-1700
Black steel, Corded thread, Red Lacquer

This face mask of black steel, with grotesque features and chin protectors, would have been attached to the helmet of a Samurai by the blue cord connected to the face mask. The Samurai were the warrior scholars of Feudal Japan, who, for 700 years, were part of the armies that roamed across the land at their commanders’ lead. When not in battle they led quiet, simple lives of training and reflection, knowing one day they may die in battle. Their possible shorter life did not stop them from facing every day with courage.

They began their rise to power in the 12th century, as the strong central government of Japan, ruled by the emperor, became corrupted and weakened. In the year 1185, a military leader named, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99), forced the emperor to give him the title of Shogun (similar to a King) , which means barbarian conquering supreme general. The Shogun would become leader of the country, while the emperor was relegated to a strictly ceremonial position. The Shogun then selected advisors to serve as daimyo (like a Lord of governor), who ruled over large tracts of land. As can be expected, ruling over large amounts of land was difficult and protecting the land from bandits, even more so. To deal with the protection, the daimyo hired independent warriors who would become the samurai, which when translated means one who serves.

The samurai conducted themselves in a dignified manner in public; not drinking uncontrollably and treating women with respect. This was all a part of their bushido code (a code of ethics) that not only stressed respect to oneself and others, but also stressed education, physical and mental strength, as well as the various arts. Through this dignified public manner, samurai became respected by the public and continued to see their status rise as a warrior class. Only samurai were allowed to carry weapons in public and to disrespect them could mean death.

The weapons of a samurai were not only tools for combat, but were also seen as an extension of his very soul. The samurai treated these weapons with high regard and would not draw his weapons outside of war, for to do so meant someone would die. Many samurai believed that a weapon once unsheathed could not be re-sheathed until it had seen combat. As such, it was extremely disrespectful to draw a weapon for no purpose. The samurai sword was his most important weapon, which, according to tradition and belief, contained the samurai’s spirit. The armor the samurai wore was designed to turn aside the impact of arrows, which were the samurai’s biggest threat on the battlefield. Dying by the sword of another samurai was considered a noble death, but death by an arrow, which could come from any direction, did not have this distinction.

The facemask of the samurai called a mengu often had grotesque features including teeth and mustaches, in an attempt to intimidate the enemy. The inside, much like the mask in the collection, is lacquered red to reflect the warriors face and aid in the intimidation factor. While the facemask also had the purpose of offering physical protection to the face, its most important feature was the fact it provided a convenient place to tie off and hook the helmet cords, keeping it in place.

Take a look at this video to learn more about Samurai armor:

Sources:

Hanel, Rachael

2008  Samurai: Fearsome Fighters. Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education.

Sinclaire, Clive

2004  Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. Guilford, Connecticut: Salamander Books.

[Dakota Stevens]

Object: Ritual Mask

E/1967/23/2
Ritual Mask
Columbia, South America
Unknown
Bark Cloth, Paint, Tar

This mask is made of a bark cloth bag, which fits over the head of the wearer and is tied at the top. The bag comes to a point, which hangs over the top of the head. From this point of the tie, there are tassels of straw that hang down. The face portion of the mask has an oval disk of hardened tar, from which there are two tar covered pieces of wood protruding. The black tar is decorated with linear and geometric designs in white and yellow pigments.

This mask comes from the Yucuna Indians of Columbia. They inhabit the Miriti-Parana and lower Caqueta regions of the Amazon River on lands called resguardos. These lands are similar to reservations in the United States in that they are constitutionally approved by the government. Thanks to these resguardos, the Yucunas have been able to maintain many of their traditional ways and live with their worldview intact. This worldview emphasizes the interconnectedness of the environment with all living things. This interconnectedness is seen in the belief that balance must be maintained between humans, animals, and plants. If too much energy exists in any one of these categories, it would disrupt the natural flow of life. To aid in maintaining the balance, the tribe uses shamans (religious leaders) to help guide the group in properly distributing their resources and keep a healthy balance.

The mask depicted here is used in tribal dances by men. The mask is most likely used to celebrate the harvest of palm fruit, but it is only used once before being discarded. The dance is a way the Yucuna can celebrate their interconnectedness with nature and keeps nature in balance. Palm fruits come in a wide variety and are found in tropical regions all over the world. Some examples of the edible varieties of these fruits are coconuts and Acai berries. For many indigenous peoples around the world, palm fruits provide essential food for survival and even today are seen as an important part of their lives. Like the fruit, there are other parts of the palm tree, which provide for people. Leaves can be used as parts of traditional clothing and for housing, and they can also be used to store food by wrapping it up in the leaves. The bark and trunks of some palm trees are used for bark cloth clothing, such as what was used in this mask, in addition to making canoes.

Sources:

Fabius, Carine

2012  Jagua, A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon. Los Angeles: Kouraj Press.

Stein, Geoff

2011  Edible Palms: An Introduction to Palm Fruits. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/3242/#b

[Dakota Stevens]

Object: Fencing Mask

E/1949/2/7
Fencing Mask
Japan
1650-1700
Painted metal, Cotton, Leather

This mask is an example of a typical Japanese fencing mask. It is made of a blue cotton head piece that has been padded to help the wearer shrug off blows from a bamboo sword. The face of the mask is trimmed in leather to provide stability. The red painted metal bars serve the dual function of protecting the face and as a marker to the opponent in the match; indicating a no strike zone.

The mask is the traditional mask worn in the Japanese sport of Kendo. The literal translation of Kendo is “Way of the Sword.” It was originally a way for Japanese warriors to train for combat without having to worry about severe injury, though one can still leave a bruise. Not only was the warrior protected from severe injury, but a priceless sword handed down through generations was also carefully guarded. Kendo is the more modern ritualized version of Japanese fencing, though it is not a solitary sport in Japan when it comes to the sword arts, which are taught to people of all ages. Two other Japanese sword arts include;  Bujutsu, which is an attempt to train individuals in traditional Japanese military skills and Iaido, which focuses on the technique and esthetic of drawing the sword. It is important to note Kendo is not Bushido, which is the way of the samurai. Kendo may have developed out of this tradition, but it has rules associated with it that combat did not.

Kendo is not just a physical sport, but also demands great mental work. When practiced properly Kendo becomes a Do; this is a path or way that can lead an individual to self-cultivation. This in turn means Kendo can lead a person to learning about him or herself, both physically and mentally.

Figure 3      Diagram of Kendo Uniform

Figure 3 Diagram of Kendo Uniform

One of the key components of Kendo is the uniform that is worn by all who practice it while in the Dojo, the hall where Kendo is practiced.  The uniform consists of a pleated split skirt called a bakam, and a heavy cotton top called a keikogi. By wearing this uniform, the students of Kendo link their modern training with the ancient tradition of Japanese martial arts. The uniform is usually dark blue or black in color which is associated with the samurai’s traditional role as a representative of social order. What this means is that samurai were a respected social class in Feudal Japan and as such were seen as a policing force just by being present and inspiring others to live by their example. Worn over the general uniform is the armor each student and master will wear to further protect themselves in bouts. The first piece of armor is the tare, which is tied around the waist as a hip protector. Next the do is put on to serve as the chest protector. The student then moves to protect the head with the hachimaki, a towel like cloth, which is also used to keep sweat out of the eyes. The second to last piece is the men, which is the face mask, an example of which is housed in the Ethnology Collection. The last piece is the kote, which are arm guards as well as hand guards.

Take a look at this video to learn more about Kendo:

Sources:

Donohue, John J.

1999  Complete Kendo. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc.

Sasamori, Junzo and Warner, Gordon

1964  This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc.

[Dakota Stevens]


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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