Ceremonial mask "Baba"

390 €

Abelam-people, Maprik district, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, early to mid. 20th century, private collection from Finland.

Sepik is the longest river on the island of New Guinea. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Sepik River's region is thought to be the largest freshwater wetlands that still remain uncontaminated by humans and industry. Enormous, over 1,126 km long Sepik River meander slowly through the forested lowlands, floodplains and backwater swamps. Along the banks of the river and its many tributaries live sparsely remote villages, scarcely contacted by the outside world. Many of the villages along East Sepik River did not have contact with Western world until the late 19th century and maintained a lifestyle that changed little for thousand years.

The people of diverse and ecologically rich Sepik region speaks more than 250 different languages are knitted together of trading and cultural interaction. The largest language and culture group along the river is the Iathmul-people (c. 10,000 people). The life is centered on the river. Men fish from their traditional dugout canoes to provide a primarily diet of fish, while women make sago out of the sago palm tree. Sepik is called a ”living gallery of tribal art”. The Sepik is one of the most profuse and diverse art producing regions of the world. The numerous different tribes living along the river produce magnificent wood carvings and clay pottery. In the same way, each clan's traditions are unique, so is their art. Unique in the style, colors, and design, and taking various shapes depending on the villages, stools, masks, totems, house posts, hooks, drums and shields. Many of these totems and masks aim to protect the villages and clans against evil spirits.

The Abelam people live in East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, in Prince Alexander mountains near the north coast of the island. Contact between the Abelam and Europeans began in the 1920s and ’30s, but it was not until the 1960s that colonialism brought about significant changes in Abelam culture. The Abelam are horticulturalists living mainly on yams, taro, and sweet potatoes. They depend also on sago palms, which they exploit only seasonally, and on coconuts, bananas, and a large variety of vegetables and fruits. The Abelam people may well be the world’s most accomplished yam growers, specializing in the display and exchange of long yams (Dioscorea spp). Two species species of yams are commonly grown, the wāpi and ka (jāmbe). Ka yams are raised for food, but a few varieties of wāpi are grown to gigantic size in special gardens tended by Abelam men. These yams, which have great symbolic and ritual significance for the Abelam people, are exchanged in competitions with trade partners (sambura) from rival groups. Specimens of the premier wāpi variety (the māmbutap), can attain lengths of three meters or more. These extraordinary yams are put on public display after the harvest.

The village territory is generally divided into upper and lower topographical units. The structure of villages in the north is complex. Through rituals for different root crops, yam festivals, and initiation, the different major hamlets, each of which has a special role within this network of rituals, are bound together. Buildings such as storehouses, sleeping and dwelling houses, menstruation huts, and the towering ceremonial houses are built on the ground in a triangular plan. They consist more or less of a roof with a ridgepole gently sloping down from the front towards the back. Most spectacular are the ceremonial houses (korambo) with a large ceremonial ground (amei) in front of it. Only major hamlets have a korambo, which may be up to 25 meters tall, with a painted facade. The korambo and amei are considered the village center but larger villages may have up to ten or fifteen such centers.

Abelam traditional religion and spiritual beliefs involved various mystical objects, plants, animals, spirit beings, and, most importantly, ancestral spirits (ngwālndu). Many of these supernatural beings were thought to be capable of influencing human affairs, and people sought their aid by offering up ritual displays, engaging in mystical practices, and avoiding actions that would anger them. The most powerful and most respected of all these supernatural beings were the ancestral spirits. Abelam males were introduced to these spirit beings through a series of successive initiation ceremonies in which the ngwālndu were represented by carved wooden statues, paintings, and sounds.

Ceremonial yams are lovingly cared for. Yam growers spend considerable time arranging their vines on trellises and inspecting their tubers. This involves digging an inspection hole, removing secondary tubers, breaking up the soil below and around the yam, placing magical substances in the hole, and back-filling. Magical substances include  stinging paint (kwus nyengi), a substance said to irritate the yam and force it to grow deeply and quickly. These may include organic matter, lime, and wood ashes, sometimes mixed with water. During the yam growing season, strong emotions were kept to a minimum as they were thought to impede the growth of the yams. Fighting and sexual activity are taboo, it was thought that the yams had spirit and could sense these strong emotions. Thus, during yam growing, there is a marked reduction in hunting, in overt expressions of anger and hostility, and in social interaction more generally. The yam displays are very festive occasions. Yam growers from rival villages typically arrive together on the morning of the event. When they are all gathered, the yams, which have been concealed behind barriers and decorated with shell, feather, and basketry ornaments, are carried onto the ceremonial ground.

The finest and largest yams are essentially transformed into human images, decorated like the men in full ceremonial regalia. Meanwhile, the ceremonial costumes of these men impersonate ngwālndu ancestral spirits. The heads of these yams are adorned with a hand-painted and finely woven vegetal masks. These masks are made especially for the yams and are never worn by people. Each wāpi is attached to a pole, and carried by two men, one at each end. As the yams are paraded, guests show their approval of their rivals’ efforts by putting special leaves (naarendu) or lime on particularly good specimens. The wāpi are then lined up along wooden frames in front of the ceremonial houses where they are carefully inspected and measured by ritual exchange partners. Following the inspection, rivalrous songs, particularly on the themes of yam exchanges and warfare, are sung by individuals. While the yams are being inspected by the guests, women from the host village prepare an elaborate feast. Food is distributed during the singing of the yam songs, which eventually give way to general feasting. In the late afternoon, there is a distribution of food to the exchange partners and other visitors, after which many depart. Others, particularly the young people stay for the singing and dancing that continue until dawn. A week or so later, the waapi are actually carried to the exchange partners’ hamlets and given to them with relatively little fanfare. When the yam festivals and male initiation ritual celebration have subsided, Abelam relax and regroup to begin the next year’s yam cycle.

Absolutely gorgeous yam fan. Yam fans are used behind basketry masks or small balsa heads to decorate the giant yams grown by the Abelam men. Traces of yellow, black and brownish red pigments over a thin layer of mud or a clay. Very good condition. Dust and dirt. Size approx. 26,0cm x 27,2cm x 1,3cm (excluded modern stand).

Citations, references and sources:

Abelam Masks: New Perspectives, Richard Scaglion, 2020, Tribal Art No.96, pp. 42-49.

The Stars Are Eyes: A New Perspective on the Art of the Abelam, Marc Assayag, Montreal: Marc Assayag, 2019.


Yam Cycles and Timeless Time in Melanesia, Richard Scaglion, Ethnology, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer, 1999, Published University of Pittsburgh- Of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, pp. 211-225

Ceremonial Houses of the Abelam - Papua New Guinea, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Goolwa: Crawford House Publishing, 2015, p. 173.

Yam Symbolism in the Sepik: An Interpretative Account, Donald F. Tuzin, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 28, No. 3, University of New Mexico, 1972, pp. 230–54.

Abelam, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Encyclopedia.com, (https://www.encyclopedia.com)