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Each Sepik River village is independent and has a distinctive style. The Sepik River snakes in broad, meandering coils for over 650 miles before emptying into the Bismark Sea. The middle river is the most densely populated with over 25 large villages of the Iatmul language group.
Men carve masks from soft wood. Paint is made from earth pigments and charcoal. Masks are decorated with shells, pig tusks, and cassowary feathers. Few masks are worn directly over the face, which explains why many lack of holes for eyes. They may be part of a large cone-shaped wicker framework for a dance costume called a tumbuan. Other masks are made only for display in the men's Haus to attract powerful and useful spirits. Masks often refer to a clan totem such as crocodile or eagle.
Savi masks are the most powerful. All savi have their tongues stuck out as a sign of aggression towards enemies of their clan. In the men's ceremonial Haus Tambarans, the orator's stools are savis and also many of the gable masks.
Mai (or mwai) masks, presented as pairs of mythical brothers and sisters, are the teachers in the young men's initiation ceremonies. Mai masks represent the spirits of totemic names. Names are very sacred in PNG. No one actually says anyone's real name, including their own, for fear of drawing the attention of bad spirits or sorcerers. During initiations, the elder who wears the mai mask becomes a spirit teacher who may say the important totemic names without evoking personal risk.
If a village or clan has a lot of bad luck, the whole group may change their names and buy the rights to use masks from another clan in different village in an attempt to fool the bad spirits or sorcerers. The resulting masks usually display characteristics of both groups.
Sevi masks represent beings who are at a lower level than the savis. Often the "tongue" is the carver's clan totem. Tumbuna masks represent actual ancestors. Some masks represent hunting spirits. New masks may appear when a man dreams a spirit and carves a mask to represent it.
More photographs and information on masks from the Middle Sepik River
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/