Ceremonial figure ”Yena”
Kwoma people, Washkuk Hills, East-Sepik, Papua New Guinea, 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 Kwoma people are divided in two dialect groups. One is located in Washkuk Hills and the other (Nukuma) is situated along the tributaries of the Sepik. The total population in 1936, the year in which the Kwoma were studied by ethnographers, was less than a thousand (in 2003, three thousand). The population are divided settlement groups composed of numerous hamlets separated by gardens and stretches of forest. In Washkuk Hills all settlements were located on hilltops. At the center of each hamlet are one or more huge male ceremonial building as its focal point which were used venues for rituals. The relation with outsiders are often hostile, and even relations among the four Kwoma subtribes can be violent, with members of one subtribe setting out on head-hunting expeditions against another.
The three major contemporary Kwoma rituals yena-ma, mindja-ma and noukwi, are devoted to the cultivation of yams. Yams cannot be eaten until the spirits responsible for their growth have been appropriately honored. In these ceremonies men display different styles of painted and decorated wooden sculptures depicting powerful clan spirits. The yena figure are displayed a top a large basket-like structure containing part of the yam crop. They represent the human soul. This figure are a stylized human head with heavy and thick brow, small ears, tubular protruding eyes, angular nose and simply smiling mouth. Old examples often have downward facing spikes on the back of the head. Painted with various pigments. Good condition. Age-related wear and traces of ceremonial use. Size approx 71,0cm x 21,0cm.