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Basket yam masks are an essential part of Abelam yam harvest ceremonies. The Abelam live on the fertile foothills and plains between the Prince Alexander Mountains near Maprik and the Wosera area above the Sepik River. They cultivate yams as their main staple crop. Rituals associated with yams are a major part of their spiritual life.
Abelam hill village houses hug close to the warmth of the earth, but their spectacular A-frame Haus Tambarans start low in the back and soar up to 80 feet in the front. Gardens are cleared and burned from the jungle. Digging sticks and special yam shovels with clan figures on top are used to prepare the deep, soft soil needed to grow yams. The trellised vines form enormous green mounds during the growing season.
A man's status is judged by his ability to grow ceremonial long yams which can reach 9-12 feet. During the 5 month growing season, a man spends all of his time tending his yams, observing food and sexual taboos and performing rituals.
At the harvest festival, the best yams are prominently displayed in front of the Haus Tambaran. The biggest ones are tied horizontally on long poles and leaned in rows along each side of the display area. A straight yam tuber is considered to be male; if it has protuberances, it is female. The best yams are dressed with masks and named as ancestral spirits. Feathers, bright flowers, fruits, and colorful leaves are added to the display. Hundreds of yams of all sizes are presented in decorated mounds for viewing and distribution.
A man does not keep his own long yams, but exchanges them with his traditional trading partner from another village. Whoever has grown the largest yams is seen as the most powerful. During the yam lining, all the trading partners come in from their villages to feast and display their wealth.
Basket yam masks are woven by the men. They take a large grass and using their teeth, strip out the center. The pliable outer edges are used as weft to cover the foundation coils. Masks are painted with clay pigment and natural dyes. Each harvest, the men clean and repaint the masks with new, powerful color. An old mask will have remanent layers of paint on it. The variation of forms is endless and the basketry is beautiful and complex. Turn a mask over and look at the work on the unpainted back to better appreciate the skill involved in forming the intricate shapes.
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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/