Yam Masks, Papua New Guinea

Yam Mask (baba), 20th century
Abelam people; Maprik area, Prince Alexander Mountains, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Lygodium vine fiber and cassowary feather; 23 3/8 x 18 x 13 1/4 in.
99.76.132
99.2.8
In the Sepik River Region of Papua New Guinea yams play a prominent role in the agricultural and ceremonial practices of the Abelam people. For almost half of the year men nurture their yams carefully as their personal status is judged by their ability to produce large yams. These giants can measure between 9 – 12 feet in length and they play a crucial role in the annual yam festival where they are publicly displayed. They are embellished with feathers, flowers, paint and masks such as the ones pictured here. The large decorated yams are believed to be live embodiments of the ancestors and the masks play a central role in representing the spiritual beings. Power and status are directly related to the size of the yam and gender is prescribed to each based on their straightness and protrusions.
2000.43.11
Men weave the yam masks with human and animal characteristics and then typically cover them with clay pigment and dyes. A masterful weaver will produce a mask that is tightly woven, clear in form and idea and that has a visual presence that easily conveys the spirit of the ancestor. The application of paint animates the finished mask; paint is the transformative ingredient that changes the status of the mask from an inanimate thing to living spirit. Masks are cleaned and repainted after each ceremony and examples of a mask well covered with paint and one that is missing most of its pigment are shown here. These two examples illustrate well the complex and highly inventive styles of Abelam weavers.
All images and text under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change with further research.
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