Art from the Middle Sepik Region of Papua New Guinea

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The Sepik is the longest river on the island of New Guinea. Located primarily in northeast New Guinea, the majority of the river flows through the Papua New Guinea (PNG) provinces of Sandaun (formerly West Sepik) and East Sepik, with a small section flowing through the Indonesian province of Papua. The Sepik River winds lazily through the swampy rainforests of northwestern Papua New Guinea. has a large catchment area, and landforms that include swamplands, tropical rainforests and mountains. In many places it is a placid, almost lake-like river. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Sepik is famous for its colorful ethnic groups, spirit houses and wood carvings. Many tribes use garamut drums in rituals; the drums are formed from long, hollowed-out tree trunks carved into the shape of various totem animals. The colorful spirit houses vary from village to village. They are a place where men hang out, smoke and make music. Women aren't even allowed to walk on the paths that lead to them and the men feel if a woman enters the house it will anger the spirits which are believed to live in the jungles and mountains.

Numerous languages are spoken in the Sepik River area. Each one corresponds to one or more culture regions of related villages that exhibit similar social characteristics. The largest language and culture group along the river is the Iatmul people. The Middle Sepik languages comprise diverse groups of Sepik languages spoken in northern Papua New Guinea in areas surrounding the town of Ambunti in East Sepik Province. Unlike most other Sepik languages, Middle Sepik languages do not overtly mark gender on nouns. The Middle Sepik languages are 1) Ma–Tama, including the Nukuma languages and Tama languages; and 2) Ndu–Yerekai, including the Ndu–Nggala, Nggala, Ndu languages and Yerakai (Garamambu).

Art from the Middle Sepik

The Sepik region 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, sculpture, masks, shields, clay pottery and other art and craft. Carvings of spirits can be found both outside and inside the spirit houses. According to Lonely Planet the best houses are in Mapril. Different areas along the Sepik produce distinct art styles and

According to Encyclopedia Britannica: Roughly 200 separate groups speaking distinct languages live around the Sepik River. As might be expected, the variety of artistic styles found among these groups is bewildering, but three visual elements seem to be basic to nearly all the styles in varying degrees: 1) designs in which two triangular forms are connected at their bases or apexes, often with further design elements in the angles so formed, 2) sculpture based on vertical series of hooklike forms that can be either unidirectional or in opposed groups, and 3) naturalistic representation of natural objects. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

In the Sepik region, masks were not always made to be worn on the face. Many Sepik peoples created masks, or masklike carvings, that were never worn but served, like figures, as sacred images of ancestors and spirits and were kept in the men 's ceremonial house. In many areas miniature masks were made to adorn sacred ftutes or to be worn as personal ornaments. Some middle Sepik peoples also produced enormous wood or basketry masks that were mounted on the gables of ceremonial houses. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

A ceremonial roof figure from Yuat river the Middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, sated to 1600-1890 and 41¾ in (106 centimeters) in height, sold for around US$3,36 million in June 2013 at Christie’s in Paris.

Yipwon Figures from the Middle Sepik Region

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Throughout the ranges of hills south of the middle Sepik River in northeast Papua New Guinea, a number of peoples worked in what is known as the opposed-hooks style, in which curved and pointed hooks are arranged on a vertical axis around a central design element. Among the most elegant are the remarkable stylized anthropomorphic hook figures of the Alamblak people that are known as yipwon. Local oral tradition describes the origin of these distinctive images. When the spirit of the Sun, who formerly inhabited the earth, was carving the first slit gong (a large musical instrument), the pieces of wood chipped from the carving came to life as spirits who lived with the Sun in the men's ceremonial house. One day these spirits killed one of the Sun's male relatives and drank his blood, after which they stretched themselves out against the wall of the house and turned back into wood. Angered by their act, the Sun ascended into the sky while the yipwon remained on earth as patron spirits of warfare and hunting. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

One 19th century Yipwon figure made of wood by the Yimam people in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection originates from the Korewori River area, East Sepik Province, and is 86 inches high, with a width of 19 inches and a depth of 7 inches (218.4 × 48.3 × 17.8 centimeters). Large yipwon images such as this one were owned collectively by clans, while smaller portable examples were individually owned and served as amulets, carried in net bags by their owners to bring success in hunting and battle. One smaller one measures 18 inches × 5.75 inches (45.7 × 14.6 centimeters).

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Admired by Western artists for their radical conception of the human form, the distinctive one-legged hook figures (yipwon) of the Korewori River region caused a sensation when the first examples reached the West in the 1950s. Created by the Yimam people, the figures occur in two distinct sizes. Large-scale images, such as the present work, were owned by clans or subclans and kept in the men's ceremonial house, where they stood leaning against the back wall, the most sacred area of the house's inner sanctum. Smaller examples were owned by individuals, who carried them as personal amulets and hunting charms. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007; Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

The facial features are highly stylized, with bulbous, projecting foreheads and strongly prognathous jaws. The head is bracketed by a crescent-shaped form, likely representing the arm, which reaches up to touch the chin (shown with a long, sharply pointed beard), and a hooklike crest, which is often interpreted as a feather. The central section of the body consists of a series of opposed concentric hooks, representing the ribs, surrounding a central element depicting the heart (marbir). The figures stand atop a single leg with a prominent flexed knee. This example may also originally have had a foot, w hich has since been lost. Important and effective yipwon images were preserved and handed down for generations, and the eroded surface and deep black patina on the present work both suggest that it is of considerable age.

Yipwon Figures and Tribal Warfare

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In former times the large yipwon figures played a central role in hunting and warfare. Depicting primordial ancestral spirits, the figures served as vessels into which the spirits were summoned before a hunt or raid. Each yipwon bore an individual name and often had a close relationship with one of the senior men from the associated clan. Much of the time the yipwon were considered inanimate objects. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Before a raid or hunt, the man most closely associated with the image activated it by chewing a magically powerful mixture of betel nut and ginger, combined with a small amount of his own blood and substances derived from the intended victim or game. The resulting liquid was applied to the yipwon, which was also rubbed with stinging nettles to make it supernaturally "hot."' As the spirit entered the figure, it frequently possessed the man, speaking through him to the assembled men. If the spirit approved of their plans, the yipwon image (perhaps held by the attendant while in a trance) was said to turn in the direction of the village to be attacked or the location where game would be found.

In times of war the spirit then left the figure and journeyed to the enemy village, creating confusion and killing some of the enemy's souls, so that the opponents could be easily slain in the ensuing attack.' If the yipwon was successful the returning men showed their gratitude to the spirit by smearing it with the blood of the victims, or offering it a small portion of the game.

If a yipwon failed, the image was abandoned, left to st and neglected in the men's house or discarded in the surrounding forest. 12 According to oral tradition, yipwon first came into being in the primordial creation period when the sun, then living on earth, carved the first slit gong from the body of a woman who had metamorphosed into a tree. The discarded chips of wood from the slit gong were transformed into yipwon spirits, the children of the sun, who lived with their father in the mens house. One day, when the sun was out hunting, one of his male relatives, who had heard the slit gong playing, came to the men's house to see it. The yipwon invited him in to look, but as he bent down to inspect the gong, they stabbed him with a spear. Mortally wounded he staggered outside and died, and the yipwon dismembered him, drank his blood, 24 and danced around the body. The sun 's mother, the moon, hearing the noise, turned around and saw what the yipwon had done. Terrified at having been caught, the yipwon figures grew stiff with fear and tied back into the men's house, where they leaned against the back wall, stretched out their bodies, and were transformed into wood figures.

Returning to find his relative dead and the yipwon unresponsive, the sun, enraged, ascended into the sk, leaving the yipwon figures behind to help humans in warfare and hunting.13 Like the ancient aripa images of the lnyai-Ewa. yipwon figures reveal elements of both the internal and the external anatomy of their supernatural subjects.

Wooden Figures on the Inyai-Ewa People

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The ancient wood sculptures of the Inyai-Ewa and neighboring groups of the upper Korewori River, a southern tributary of the Sepik, are the earliest Melanesian woodcarvings to survive in any substantial numbers. Kept in rock shelters, which protected them from the elements, the figures were primarily created between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. They occur in several forms and portray a variety of supernatural beings. Broad, flat female images are, at times, identified as representations of two primordial sisters who helped to shape the world or as the female ancestors or founders of particular clans. Two-legged male figures also likely portray primordial clan ancestors. The most abundant Inyai-Ewa carvings are the one-legged male figures, known as aripa. Kept in the men’s ceremonial house during the owner’s life and placed in a rock shelter as a memorial after his death, aripa represented spirits that resided within the images and served as hunting helpers, aiding in the capture of game such as wild pigs and cassowaries (large ostrich-like birds). Two-legged images probably portray primordial male beings associated with the village clans. As in the one-legged hunting-helper figure,, the elaborate openwork carving in the torso depicts the internal organs.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Although the precise nature and identity of the subjects are often unknown, the majority of these works portray primordial beings whose actions collectively shaped the features of the landscape and established the rules and institutions of human society. At once a part of the past and of the present, these beings inhabit a supernatural realm that exists parallel to the human world. According to the lnyai-Ewa, when one of these beings wished to have its image carved, its soul (tite) would appear to the carver in a dream, revealing its otherworldly form and providing him with instructions on whether the finished figure should be placed in a rock-shelter or kept in the men 's ceremonial house (koa). [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The aripa are highly stylized human images that depict both the external and the internal anatomy of their subjects. Although the head and single leg are fully modeled and comparatively naturalistic, the armless body is shown as if in cross section, revealing the internal organs enclosed within a spinelike dorsal line (mosa lese) at the back and a thin bar at the front representing the abdominal wall (umute). The designs on the squarish form at the top of the body cavity represent the heart-lung complex (yamali) and other internal organs, and the pendulous, serrated form depicts the intestines (ishe) and likely the splayed rib cage, which is rotated ninety degrees. Similar "X-ray" images appear in the majority of lnyai-Ewa figures as well as in the yipwon images of the neighboring Yimam people.

Female Figures of the Inyai-Ewa People

A wooden female figure made by the Inyai-Ewa people on the Korewori River in the Middle Sepik region dates to the 16th-19th century and is 67 inches high, with a width of 16.5 inches and a depth of 5 inches (170.2 × 41.9 × 12.7 centimeters). Another is 16 inches × 2.5 inches (40.6 × 6.4 centimeters). Another dating to the 16th-19th century is 66.4 inches (168 centimeters) tall.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Among the most striking lnyai-Ewa spirit images are broad, flat female figures whose heads are often surrounded, as here, by serrated, halolike forms representing ornamental wigs. The long, pendulous breasts of this figure indicate that it portrays an older woman; the abdomen, now heavily eroded, would probably have been carved with relief designs representing the navel and internal organs. Fashioned from the planklike buttress roots of trees, these female figures, according to some accounts, portray two primordial sisters who helped to shape the world and, in one oral tradition, are said to be responsible for the creation of two of the valleys where the lnyai-Ewa live and hunt today. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In some cases these primordial women were also clan ancestors. Some may also be images of the female clan founders. These female figures appear to have been intentionally created for display in rockshelters, where they would have been visible to all members of the community, rather than in the men's house. Two-legged male figures also seem to have been made for display in rock-shelters.

Male Aripa Figures of the Inyai-Ewa People

A wooden male figure made by the Inyai-Ewa people on the Korewori River in the Middle Sepik region dates to the 16th-19th century and is 47.5 inches (121 centimeters) tall. A similar one made in the 16th-19th century from wood and paint and is 43 inches (109 centimeters) tall.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Of the diverse ancient wood figures created by the lnyaiEwa people, by far the most numerous are the distinctive one-legged male images known as aripa.' In the past each man owned an aripa, which was kept, together with those of other hunters, in the men's ceremonial house (koa). [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Representing potent spirits whose souls (tite) resided within the images, the aripa served as "hunting helpers," aiding the lnyai-Ewa in the capture of game such as wild pigs, cassowaries, and tree kangaroos. 3 Before setting out on a hunt, the hunter presented his aripa with an offering consisting of a small amount of the droppings of the desired animal mixed with his own blood. 4 Enlivened by the offering, the tite left the wood image and embarked on a supernatural nocturnal hunt, during which, aid ed by the supernatural "mother" of the species, it sought to find and kill the souls of the game animals. If the spirit was successful, the animal, its soul already dead, would be easily found and slain by the human hunter the following day. At the conclusion of a successful hunt, the hunter presented a small portion of the meat to the aripa to thank the spirit for its assistance.

Aripa played a similar role in the pursuit of human enemies. Before embarking on a raid, the men involved each made offerings to their individual aripa and departed from the men's house, leaving a young boy behind as an "observer." Guided by a potent female being known as "the mother of the men's house," the spirits of the aripa formed a supernatural raiding party, which attacked and slew the souls of the enemy, ensuring victory. When the aripa returned, the boy overheard their conversation and instructed the men on how best to stage the raid.

A man's aripa was kept in the men's house throughout his life, hidden from the view of women and children. At death, however, the image, accompanied b the bones and personal effects of the deceased, was taken to a rockshelter, where it was placed alongside the aripa of other departed hunters and other sacred carvings. Serving as temporary campsites and places of 23 remembrance, these rock-shelters were open to the entire com mu nit and the once-secret aripa images were visible to all.

However, at times a particularly effective aripa might later be taken from the rock-shelter and returned to the men 's house, where it was enlivened with a new tite and resumed its former role.10 A number of old aripa, including the present work, show evidence of more recent re painting, suggesting that they may have been reused in this way.

Taki Crocodile Figure

On a 25-foot (7.6-meter), 19th-or-early-20th century, wood and paint Taki Crocodile Figure made by the Karawari people of Ambonwari village, in the middle part of the Korewori River in the middle Sepik region, Eric Kjellgren wrote: In former times the most sacred objects of the Karawari people, were massive crocodile figures. The present work would have equalled even the largest crocodiles that lurked in the waters nearby. These remarkable images are among the rarest forms of Sepik sculpture, and only roughly sixteen examples survive.' Referred to in general as taki — the same term is used for living crocodiles — each image also had a personal name relating to a specific totemic being from the creation period, who may also have been a clan ancestor, and only the two oldest clans in a given village were permitted to possess these powerf u I crocodile images. Displayed in pairs on long, low benches in the men's ceremonial house, the taki were said to represent two primordia l brothers. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Like the figures of other Korewori peoples, crocodile effigies were used in war magic. According to the men of Ambonwari village, where the present work was col lected, the spirit of the taki "can appear in dreams to stir up thoughts of war. He can think and speak and let the important men know which village to attack, and how many inhabitants to kill." In preparation for a raid, men in some villages stuffed the holes in the crocodile's sides with betel nuts, ginger and other spices, and leaves, which they later chewed and applied to the tips of their spears, making them supernaturally powerful. In some cases warriors inserted poles into the holes and lifted the figure from the ground, carrying it for a short distance in the direction of the enemy village. Placed back on the ground, the crocodile was said to emit a series of taps indicating the number of enemy heads that would be taken. Upon the raiders' return from a successful attack, the heads were placed in the crocodile's jaws and its body daubed with the victims' blood. Though obtained from enemies, the heads, once captured, were believed to impart their supernatural powers to the victors' community. Thus, the crocodile images, through their association with warfare and head-hunting, ensured the continuing fertility and prosperity of the village.

These enormous crocodile effigies were also used as part of male initiation rites. During the initiations of the Mekmek (a neighboring group who created closely similar crocodile images), the heavy wood crocodiles, concealed in the men's house, were lifted into the air by groups of men who stood underneath, their bodies hidden from view by decorations (probably strips of palm leaves) attached to the lower edges of the figures. When the crocodile was raised into position, other men inserted sacred bamboo flutes into the four holes in the crocodile's sides. The sounds of the flutes resonating within the sacred image represented the roar of the crocodile. Emanating from the men's house, the roar signaled the moment when the initiates were being devoured by the crocodile being. Hearing, detail the sound, the women gathered outside ceremonially wept for their sons within.

Art of the Sawos People

The Sawos people of the Middle Sepik River region of New Guinea are divided into a number of clans, each of which is associated with specific ancestors and totemic species. The Sawos and the river-dwelling Iatmul, who historically derive from the Sawos, worked in styles totally different from those of the people to the north. Their ceremonial houses were long rectangular structures, with upper stories elevated on posts often carved with ancestral faces and figures. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a mask (Mai) made of wood, clay, nassa shells, pig tusks, cowrie shells, conus shells, feathers and paint. Dating to the mid-20th century, it originates from Gaikarobi in Middle Sepik River region and is 28 inches high and 5.25 inches wide (71.1 × 13.3 centimeters).

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The Sawos and neighboring groups in the Middle Sepik region have a highly developed ceramic tradition that remains active today. The most ornate Sawos vessels are kamana, incised and painted conical bowls used to serve sago, a staple food prepared from the starchy core of the sago palm. Although their complex imagery can include supernatural subjects, kamana are not ritual objects but ordinary food bowls kept and used within the household. Placed on a ring of plaited cane, which holds the conical vessels upright, kamana are used for serving sago, a thick porridgelike dish prepared from the starchy core of the sago palm which is a staple food for many Sepik peoples.[Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Although some examples are made for local use, Sawos potters produce large numbers of kamana as trade gnods for exchange with the neighboring latmul people, who in turn trade them to the Angoram and other groups farther down the Sepik.3 35 The creation of kamana is a lengthy and complex process that involves artists of both sexes. Women produce the bowls using the coiling technique, in which thin coils of moist clay are gradually built up to form the vessel, which is smoothed to produce a uniform surface.

Once the completed bowls have dried to a leathery consistency, the men polish the inner surface and decorate the exterior using a chip-carving technique, cutting away portions of the clay so that the motifs st and out in low relief. The newly carved bowls are left to dry for another two weeks, after which they are fired, generally by the women. After firing, the carved designs are painted by the men using earth pigments. The bowls are then kept for a time in dwellings until their brightly painted surfaces become smoked or covered in soot from the household fires, after which they are ready for use or trade. 5 Although the vessels are placed upright when in use, the designs on the kamana are intended to be viewed with the bowl in an inverted position. The imagery of Sawos kamana usually consists of geometric motifs derived from plant and animal forms, interspersed with anthropomorphic heads said to represent "spirit faces." Figural compositions, such as that of the present work, are more common among neighboring groups, who may have influenced the style of, or possibly created, the present work. Possibly illustrating an episode from local origin tradition, the design portrays a man and a woman (only the female figure is visible in the photograph here) in sexual union, surrounded by stylized birds.

One Sago Bowl (Kamana) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection made by the Sawos people from ceramic and paint. Dating to the early to mid-20th century, it is 8.25 inches high, with a width of 11.5 and a depth of 10.5 inches (21 × 29.2 × 26.7 centimeters). The patterns usually consist of geometric motifs interspersed with faces identified as those of spirits. Figural compositions are rare. This kamana portrays a man and woman (only the woman is visible here), possibly primordial ancestors, in sexual union and surrounded by stylized birds, which probably represent totemic species.

Sawos People Ancestor Figures

Wooden ancestor figures made the Sawos people were representations of powerful and dangerous beings called wan or waken. Each figure was owned by a specific clan and named for an important clan ancestor. Each Sawos clan is associated with specific ancestors and totemic species. These ancestral and totemic beings are represented by wooden figures kept in the men's ceremonial houses. The marks on the abdomen of one figure represent rooster heads joined by a length of intestine and are similar to the ritual scarifications made on the bodies of initiated Sawos men. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

One Sawos ancestor figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is made of wood, paint, fiber and ferrous metal. Dating to the 19th century or earlier, it originates from Yamok village, East Sepik Province in the Middle Sepik River region and is 72 inches high, with a width of 12.75 inches and a depth of 9.87 inches (182.9 x 32.4 x 25.1centimeters)

This figure which bears the name Minjemtimi and is reputed to be ten generations old. It is said to have been made in the village of Kwalunggei. When warriors from neighboring Yamok village raided Kwalunggei, the figure is said to have come to life and fought the invaders until hit by a spear, which broke off its left arm (the wound is still visible as a repair). The wounded Minjemtimi fell to the ground and turned back into a wooden figure that was carried off by the raiders. In Yamok the figure was kept by the Ainggun clan in a ceremonial house in the hamlet of Wolembi. The marks on the abdomen represent rooster heads joined by a length of intestine and are similar to the ritual scarifications made on the bodies of initiated Sawos men.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: With its forceful expression and tense, muscular body, this Sawos figure perfectly captures the supernatural potency of the ancestral being it portrays. Sawos figures represent the powerful and potentially dangerous supernatural beings known as waken or wan.' In former times each Sawos clan owned such a figure, which was kept, together with those belonging to other clans, in the men 's ceremonial house. Individual waken were often connected to specific activities such as hunting and warfare but were also responsible in a more general way for the overall welfare of the community. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Although the powers of waken were often beneficial, if not properly treated waken had the ability to bring misfortune, accident, or death. Before embarking on a hunt or raid, the men of the clan presented offerings of food and betel nut to the figure while cal ling out the names of the waken, to ensure their favor. If such offerings were not presented, th e waken would express its displeasure. During a hunt, fore ample, th e angered waken might enter a wild pig and attack and gore the hunters.

Meaning and Artistry of a Sawos People Ancestor Figure

Each Sawos ancestor figure had an individual history, which was known to the senior members of the clan. As with much Pacific art, in most instances these histories have been lost. The present work, however, ii an exc ption. At the time it was collected the figure wa hou ed in Damwibit, a ceremonial house in the village of Yamok, where it belonged to the Aing 'gun clan. According to oral tradition, the figure represents a powerful supernatural being named Minjemtimi and is said to have originally been carved long ago in a village called Kwa 'lung'ge i. When Minjemtimi was first created, the villages of Kwa 'lung 'gei and Yamok were on friendly terms, so the men of Yamok knew the figure 's name. However, relations later soured and the men of Yamok attacked Kwa 'lung'gei, killing the residents and seizing the figure, together with an important sacred mask, as war prizes. During the attack, the image of Minjerntimi is said to have come to life to fight for his home village. In the battle Minjemtimi fought with Kulurnbowi, a legendary Yarnok warrior, who cut off Minjemtirni 's arm with a spear. Severely wounded, Minjemtirni 74 I 36 fell to the ground and turned back into a wood figure. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Minjemtimi still bears the evidence of his ordeal in the pairs of holes drilled in the left shoulder, which once held cordage that was used to reattach his arm. Following its capture, the figure is said to have been kept by the men of Yamok for ten or eleven generations before it was collected in the late 1950s. The figure portrays Minjemtimi as a robust initiated man. His muscular chest bears two crescent-shaped motifs, representing scarification patterns that are made on the chests of young men during initiation.8 The design on the stomach, which shows two bird heads joined by a meandering motif representing the intestines, may also depict a scarification mark.

In addition to its sculpted designs, th e figure retains evidence of the diverse and ephemeral forms of decoration that were applied to the figures. The head is adorned with ceremonial face paint, whose ftuid, curvilinear patterns are similar to those worn by men on important occasions. Minjemtimi also wears a fiber belt, whi ch may represent the remains of totemic plants with which the figures were decorated. As the paint and plant materials faded, they were periodically renewed, ensuring that the powerful ancestor appeared in his full splendor.

Sawos People Malu (Ceremonial Boards)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The openwork malu boards of the Sawos people of New Guinea are perhaps the ultimate expression of the sinuous, curvilinear style that characterizes the carving of the Middle Sepik River. Although created by the Sawos, malu are traded to the neighboring Iatmul people who use them in the context of the initiation ceremonies that mark the transition of boys to manhood. If a boy dies during the initiation process, the malu are displayed to the village women to indicate that a death has occurred. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The complex imagery of these objects incorporates bird, mammal, and insect forms, many of which represent totemic species. The central face of this object depicts the heart of the sago beetle, a large insect. Four hornbills, important totemic birds, are incorporated into the openwork carving. The pig, an animal of great social and ritual significance throughout New Guinea, appears at the base.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a Sawos Ceremonial Board (Malu) made of wood. Dating to the 19th century, it originates from the Middle Sepik River region and is 75 inches high, with a width of 24 inches and a depth of 6.5 inches (190.5 x 61 x 16.5 centimeters)

Malu appear to have been made by Sawos artists primarily for exchange to the neighboring latmul people, who employed the boards as ceremonial objects.' Malu have probably not been produced since the early twentieth century; there is no information on their use among the Sawos, and what little is known about these remarkable objects, including their names, comes from latmul sources. Among the latmul, the boards were called malu or tshamhwan pauv. The term malu refers broadly to a funerary image created to represent the deceased during mortuary ceremonies, whereas the name tshamhwan pauv (one translation of which is "wounded hook") may refer to the numerous holes that pierce the complex openwork composition.

Linked in oral tradition with the origin of death, malu boards were reportedly carved to commemorate the deaths of novices or initiators who died while in ritual seclusion for male initiation rites. The malu were displayed during the public ceremonies marking the end of the initiation period, at which the women of the community were first informed of the deaths. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

At least some examples appear to have been displayed ( and possibly carved) in pairs and kept in ordinary dwellings, where they were clearly visible to women and the uninitiated, rather than among the esoteric sacred objects of the men 's ceremonial houses. 5 The complex imagery of this malu incorporates bird, insect, and mammalian forms. Like all malu, it would originally have been brightly painted with polychrome pigments.With the exception of the large face, which is not shown on the reverse side, both sides of the boards are fully carved.

The faces of malu boards depict the sago be~tle (palanggun), a large insect shown with humanlike facial features in low relief and a projecting bladelike nose representing the beetle's long proboscis. 8 The central motif on many malu is, as here, composed of a spiral formed from the gracefully curving heads of two hornbill birds (identified by the distinctive ridges on the top of 71 their beaks).

A small human head, possibly that of an ancestor, is depicted at the top. Two smaller birds, modeled in high relief, flank the nose, and the image of a male tusker pig adorns the base. These smaller animal images may represent totemic species associated with the owner's (or artist's) clan. The flowing, sinuous forms of the open designs resemble dense vegetation and are subdivided into a series of teardrop-shaped forms, whose openwork designs are interpreted by some Western observers as highly stylized human faces.' However, such interpretations remain purely speculative.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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