PAPUA NEW GUINEA

TRIBAL ART FROM THE SEPIK REGION

The Sepik River is one of the world's largest rivers flowing 1,200 km from the central spine of New Guinea to the Bismarck Sea. The Sepik and its people remain windows into the past and produce some of the most exciting carvings in the world of primitive art.  

           

The Middle Sepik Region is populated mainly by the Iatmul people who inhabit small, traditional villages along the banks of the river and its tributaries. Tribal life centers around the Haus Tambaran, or Spirit House, the most important building in the village. Some of these impressive structures reach 25 meters in height and emerge above the forest canopy. An amazing array of carvings including masks, statues and figures are kept inside the Haus Tambaran. Traditionally only initiated warriors are allowed inside, under penalty of death.

A Spirit House, Haus Tambaran, on the Chambri Lake,
Sepik Region, Papua New Guinea

A central roof support in the Spirit House of Kanganaman,
Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. The carving represents an ancestor spirit.

In common with much of the tribal art of Oceania the carvings are created to be inhabited by spirits. They are intended both to help the people meet the challenges of everyday life and to ward off the influences of unfriendly spirits. Many of the carvings are also used in ceremonies and rituals that mark the important stages of life.

Each tribe has its own beliefs and the people recognize spirits, deities, totems and ancestors unique to their clans. As a result each village has developed its own artistic style.

The individual art forms are fairly rigid. Each carving has a very specific use and embodies an individual spirit. The forms are stylized and tend towards expressionism because the spirit world is felt or dreamed, not seen.

The outside world's understanding of many of the carvings and ceremonies and of the mythology surrounding them is only superficial, for two principal reasons. The first is that these cultures are centered around secret societies; only the initiated members of the village are allowed full knowledge of the rituals and carvings and the stories associated with them. Secondly, anthropological work in the Sepik Region has been fairly limited due to the difficult field conditions. Although this situation can be frustrating the resulting mystery is intriguing.

    

Early examples of orator's chairs Sepik region.

    

Sepik River masks

Other examples of the different forms of tribal art from the Sepik region:

Ancestor figure,
Sepik Region

Ancestral Masks. These represent specific ancestors and bring the spirits of the deceased among the clan. Those spirits then share with the living the positive attributes they possessed during their natural lives.

Mwai Masks. These masks represent mythical siblings of the clan. During initiation ceremonies these are fastened to large, conical dance costumes worn by village elders who perform the rituals that transform boys into men.

Savi Masks. The savi mask is one of the tools used as protection against black magic in the Iatmul world. Easily identified by their protruding tongues and large eyes, these masks represent aggressive spirits that ward off enemies of the clan. Savis are supernatural beings and are some of the most powerful spirits recognized in this culture.

Dance Masks. To evoke the power of certain spirits, ritualistic dances complete with costumes and songs are performed with these masks. Such ceremonies are undertaken to ensure successful hunting and war parties, to bring bountiful harvests and for many other reasons.

Canoe Prow Masks. Shields fashioned from large pieces of bark and tied to cane frames are fixed to the prows of dugout canoes for protection against spears and arrows. As an added measure of protection against supernatural forces sent in advance of enemy war parties these masks are fastened to the shields. The spirits of ancestors who were great warriors are believed to inhabit these masks.

Ceremonial Shields are created for similar purposes in the Upper Sepik region. These striking, boldly colored shields are never taken into battle but are displayed prominently inside the dwelling to ward off marauding spirits from enemy villages. While they may incorporate similar themes, no two of these beautiful carvings are alike.

 

Hooks. Elaborate hooks are often described by anthropologists and collectors as cult hooks, food hooks or suspension hooks, are carved and decorated both to accommodate benevolent spirits and to preserve food. Suspending food from the hook discourages vermin, and the spirit thought to inhabit the hook is believed to retard spoilage.

Cult Hook featuring the face of the spirit "gra" (masalai). The power of the spirit is held between the hooks. The hooks are used during the initiation ceremonies - Hunstein Ranges, Gahom, Wagu, April River, Upper Sepik, Papua New Guinea.

Caramut slit drum, Sepik Region

All of the art forms described above are ancient but the cultures of Papua New Guinea are still living and changing. One apparently recent development is the wooden Trophy Head. In the past, a freshly procured human head was buried under each post when a Haus Tambaran was erected (see first image above). These structures have to be replaced frequently after destruction by fire and termites and they often contain a great number of posts, so many heads were required. Nowadays headhunting raids are frowned upon by government authorities and missionaries alike so substitute heads are carved of wood.

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