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PAPUA NEW GUINEA CANE YAM MASK

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PAPUA NEW GUINEA CANE YAM MASK

Bapa Mene Wosera, East Sepik Province

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PAPUA NEW GUINEA CANE YAM MASK

Abelam People
Lygodium vine, negwa

Height 30.6 cm (12.25)

As detailed by the Metropolitan Museum, New York,

"One of the major focuses of ceremonial life among the Abelam people of northeast New Guinea is the competitive growth and exchange of long yams. The Abelam cultivate two distinct categories of yams—a small variety used as ordinary food and long yams, massive tubers that can be as much as twelve feet long. A man's social status is determined largely by his success in growing long yams. Each man has a permanent exchange partner to whom he ceremonially presents his largest yams following the annual harvest, later receiving those of his rival in return. Men who are consistently able to give their partners longer yams than they receive gain great prestige. Lavishly adorned for the presentation ceremony, the finest long yams are essentially transformed into human images, decorated in the manner of men in full ceremonial regalia. The "heads" of the enormous tubers are adorned with specially made yam masks such as this one, which are made exclusively for yams and are never worn by humans."

Essentially the yam represents the spirit of the people and the individual yam represents the spirit of the ancestors - man, yam and the ancestral spirit are all one. The enormous amount of hard work required to dig and break up the hard clay to the depth of the proposed tuber and the care with which it is tended through the growing period of up to seven months together with all the ceremony associated means the final root is the living embodiment of this trinity - man, yam and ancestral spirit.

The yams can be kept for several months until all the yams of the village are collected. They are then decorated in the same finery as the young men at the initiation ceremony: shell jewelry and currency rings, headbands, boar's tusk pectorals, cassowary feather headdresses and these masks. Representatives from up to 25 villages congregate and hundreds of people attend the festival in their best clothes and jewelry.

The partner with whom the yams are exchanged is chosen in childhood and is usually the son of the father's partner, tchambera. With the yam representing the power of the ancestors the partner will lose face if he cannot grow a yam of equal or greater length to give in return. A record of the yam's length is kept in the form of a cut bamboo stem which will even initially be displayed outside the yam storage house to tantalise passersby. Obviously the difficulty of growing such long tubers means that many years may pass before a group is ready to put on a yam display.

Finally, because of the extremely competitive nature of the long yam exchanges, these ceremonies were in the past used as a substitute for warfare.

Museum Collections:
The Metroopolitan Museum New York US
Quai Branly Paris France
British Museum London UK - loaned to 'Changing Face' Exhibition, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds September to December 2002

Bibliography:
The Art of the Abelam, Edited by Michael Hamson
Metropoitan Museum online Yam Mask label

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