Posts Tagged 'sepik'

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!

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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

 


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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