Ceremonial dance mask "Mwai"


Iatmul people, Tambanum, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, early to mid. 20th century, private collection from Denmark.

The homeland of the Iatmul people is along the middle course of the Sepik river in the Papua New Guinea. 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. Sepik is called a ”living gallery of tribal art” and its 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 Iatmul (Iatmoi) number about 10,000, and classify themselves into three territorial subgroups, eastern (Woliagui), central (Palimbei), and western (Nyaura). Their social organisation, kinship and religious systems are very complex. The Iatmul were headhunters, but were supressed in this by the Australian colonial authorities before the Second World War. The Iatmul villages, containing 300-1000 people, are built high on the riverbanks. Houses were often built in two rows, parallel to or at a right angle to the course of the river. The life is centered on the river. The Sepik changes with the seasons. During the rainy season that lasts for around five months, the river may rise dramatically and flood the surrounding lowlands. Villages are traditionally centered on a ceremonial senior men's house (ŋgaigo or ŋgeko ), which was the architectural centerpiece of the village, and built in the center of an open space, the dancing ground. Older Iatmul men’s houses were huge buildings up to 20 meters high and 40 meters long, and decorated elaborately with carvings and paintings. The ground level of the men's houses were used in everyday life by initiated men. The upper floor were used for rituals, initiation, celebration of successful headhunting raids, performances by masked figures, and celebrations of death ceremonies for important persons. They also housed the majority of religious items including paired slit-drums, long bamboo flutes, important masks, and other sacred paraphernalia. The dancing ground also contained a ceremonial mound on which heads were displayed when brought back from a successful raid. The whole village usually constituted a defensive unit, whereas only a section of it may have made a raid on an enemy village. A village often was surrounded by fences and watchtowers. Traditionally, Iatmul houses were huge pile dwellings with the families of brothers living together in one house.

Extended families tend small horticultural gardens of taro, yam, sweet potato, and fruit trees (coconut, banana). The hunting of game, wild pigs, crocodiles, and, rarely, cassowaries is practiced only irregularly. Men make almost all implements used for subsistence, like canoes, paddles, and tools for sago production except fish traps, nets, and bags, which are made by women. Fishing is mainly women's work, using hooks, nets, and traps (when men fish they use spears). Women play important roles in Iatmul daily life. They are responsible for catching fish to trade with neighboring villages to obtain the sago and are also the primary caregivers. Men build the houses and are also the ritual specialists in the Iatmul villages. Children participate actively in the subsistence economy. Acquisition of a new skill and the first performance of a gender-specific task are celebrated for each girl and each boy individually. Iatmul patrilineal clans (ŋgaiva) are the organizational basis of the social order. The social system of the Iatmul is governed by patrilineal descent, which determines membership both of the moieties, mother (nyame) and sun (nyoui), and of the totemic clans. Across the division according to clan and moiety runs another division according to age grade, which is especially important for the male sex. These rites (naven), were carried out spontaneously by the mother's brother (wau) and/or his wife. It involved extensive ceremonial activities that ended with the scarification of the upper back and chest of the young initiate. The patterns that are made are said to resemble the skin of the crocodile, or symbolize the teeth marks of the crocodile who has "swallowed" them. In this act the blood they have lost is their mothers' blood. The crocodile is seen the most important animal in Iatmul folklore and mythology.

Iatmul mythology states that the original condition of the world was a primal sea. A wind stirred waves, and land surfaced. A large pit opened from a hole in the ground in the Sawos (Gaikundi) territory, and from it emerged the first generation of ancestral spirits (ŋgwail) and culture-heroes. Another version is the story of a great flood. The survivors floated down the Sepik river on rafts or pieces of grass-covered ground that became lodged in the river. The piece of land that this created became the site of the first men's house for the Iatmul ancestors. The present-day men's houses are supposed to be representations of the original piece of earth that was became the Iatmul world. At the same time it represented the first crocodile, the primeval ancestor who emerged from the bottom of the flood. Traditional religious beliefs of the Iatmul people centered on the spirits of the rivers, forests, and swamps. Ancestor worship is fundamental to the Iatmul; they believe that the spirits of the dead retain some power over those still living. The term "wagen" are used to describe such ancestors. Wagen is seen more threatening and more powerful than most another ancestors, and therefore one who needs to be appeased from time to time. The Iatmul are also aware of the spirits (marsalai) that were never human, mainly evil spirits that are believed to be living in mountains, lakes or bushes. There are also spirits that are belived to live near water (wansimot or wanjimout) and those that live near bushes (winsumbu, winjumbu). Each of the clans usually claims a particular species of flora or fauna as totemic ancestor (ŋgwail).

Iatmul art is well known for its excellent carvings, which were usually painted in a curvilinear style. Almost all art objects were used in ritual contexts and only through such use did they receive meaning. Also famous are the skulls overmodeled with clay and then painted. Notable features of Iatmul style include frequent use of the human face and relative lack of emphasis on the elaboration of body parts. Human faces occur on carvings in the round, standing figures, masks, and restored human skulls. Facial features vary in shape and size, as do the spatial relations between them. Eyes may be round or elongated, mouths compressed or open. These features occur in countless combinations. The nose are often beaked, overly elongated and touch the chest, navel or genitalia. Human figures are combined very often with the animals and birds, and decorated with the shells, feathers, tusks, and paint.

The gorgeous Mwai (or Mai) masks are characterized by oblong faces with elongated noses that often merge into arch-like forms that join the nose to the chin or extend below it. Masks are carved and danced in pairs, portraying elder and younger supernatural siblings, either brothers or sisters. Mwai were attached to conical woven costumes (tumbuan, used in male initiations, ceremonies (naven) and in preparations for raids and battle. Beautiful older mask, dates around 1950's. Traditional painting on the face. Features cowrie shells and smaller nassa shells, boar's tusks set in nose and raffia decorations at lower perimeter of the mask. Good condition. Age-related wear. Faded colours. Minor defects. Dirt, dust and soot. Size approx. 52.0cm x 21,0cm.

Citations, references and sources:

Iatmul Art as Iconography (New Guinea), Ina R. Dinerman, Anthropos Bd. 76, H. 5./6, 1981, Published by Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, pp. 807-824.

Surviving Traditional Art of Melanesia, John E. Edgerly, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 91, No. 4, December 1982, Published by The Polynesian Society, pp. 543-579.

The mother and her ancestral face. A commentary on Iatmul iconography, Christian Kaufmann, Dossier Hommage à Bernard Juillerat, p. 173-190. (https://doi.org/10.4000/jso.6182.)

The Pairing of Musicians and Instruments in Iatmul Society, Gordon D. Spearritt, Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 14, 1982, Published by Cambridge University Press, pp. 106-125.

Iatmul people, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, encyclopedia.com.

Iatmul people, Countries and Their Cultures, everyculture.com.