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Figure 1: Yam with balsa head and basket yam fan headdress accented with parrot feathers, Lesser Bird of Paradise plumes and shell jewelry, South Wosera, late 1980's.
The Abelam say that their yams were given to the them by Wapikan, along with rules for living properly. As long as they followed this path, the yams grew easily. However, they drifted away from Wapikan's ideals and he killed himself in despair. After that, the yams only grew with very hard work.
The growing of yams and the year-long rituals associated with them form a main center of Abelam life. Yams are the most important food, so many different names are used to describe the varieties and stages of growing thems, just as the ocean-going Polynesians have many terms to describe the sea. At the harvest yam linings, the decorated long yams (dioscorea alata) represent the nggwal spirits who are affiliated with the ancestors of the Abelam.
Figure 2: Typical wooden yam mask from the northern Abelam.
The Abelam are divided into the hill country, or northern Abelam, and the southern plains Abelam, or Wosera. The Abelam area was part of German New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelmsland) from 1884 to 1914-1920 when Australia was given New Guinea as well as Papua under a United Nations' protectorate. Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975.
Figure 3: Balsa head wearing the hat of a luluai (village chief) or tultu (assistant village chief) from the pre-WWI German colonial period
The early German administrators recognized and appointed village leaders. They gave them special hats and insignia which are still portrayed in some Abelam carvings; however, there was no significant contact with the outside world until the 1930s when gold was discovered. In 1937, the town of Maprik was founded by the Australians as a regional administrative center.
In Abelam villages, extended families are organized into patrilineal clans called kum. Initiated men also belong to one of the two groups that compete for status in the village Haus Tambaran. These are called ara. Each man also has an exchange partner, usually from another village, called a chambera.
Figures 4a and b: Small balsa heads from the South Wosera
One of the features of New Guinea competitive exchange is that instead of keeping his biggest and best yams, a man is required to give them away in order to acquire prestige. His trading partner then owes him a better yam. Until the partner produces it, the giver of the bigger yam is considered to be the stronger and more successful of the two men.
This makes it very difficult for any traditional Papua New Guinean to accumulate wealth in the Western sense without his relatives and exchange partners taking it off of him. A successful man is expected to widely share his wealth, with the understanding that if he falls on hard times, he and his family will always be able to survive by calling on their better off relatives and exchange partners in return.
This works quite well in traditional subsistence village cultures, but doesn't always work as well in conjunction with Western business ideas. The owner of a small village trade store may find that his shelves are emptied out by his relatives and friends and they are quite annoyed if he expects them to pay promptly.
Figure 5: Large ceremonial deoo, approximately 3 feet (1 meter) high from the northern Abelam. The birds are Papuan Hornbills.
Figure 6: Detail of filigreed deoo.
The harvest yam linings are a high point of ceremonial display and exchange. During the yam lining, wooden yam masks and balsa wood heads are used, along with basket yam masks, to create the nggwal spirits of the long yams. The carved wooden faces are often are backed with a fan. The fans may be woven basket ones, or ones made of closely woven and clipped cassowary feathers or wooden ones called deoo that are carved from very lightweight balsa wood. The fans are also mounted on cane frameworks and worn by dancers as headdresses during the men's initiation ceremonies.
Figure 7: Wooden yam mask from the South Wosera with rolled paper as a nose piece.
The most common colors are reds, yellows and whites from clay ochres and black from charcoal and soot. Several intense reds come from plants, as does a blue. Colors have magical powers; for example, white is used to make the long yams grow.
All initiated men are expected to carve with the more experienced men supervising the work, or a man may pay a better carver to carve for him. The best carvers are recognized as being more spiritually powerful.
Figure 8: Balsa head from the South Wosera.
One carver in the Wosera, Nyagra Kwarkwei of Sarakum Village, told me that when he was working he had to be sure that no women, children or uninitiated men came and saw what he was doing. If he became careless and let them intrude, he would have to pay a pig in compensation. This taboo also gives the carvers quiet in which to create away from the normal distractions of village life.
Figure 9: Ceremonial plaque, approximately 24 inches (60 cm) high.
Although Abelam art follows traditional ideals, each man's pieces may be unique and are his creation and interpretation of Abelam spiritual power. Carvings are seen as temporary and are often discarded after use, as the carvers know they can always create more. Some carvings are considered too powerful to keep after the ceremony is over and are carried away a safe distance from the village and left in the jungle.
Figure 10: Balsa head with birds from the South Wosera
Next: three more photographs of a yam lining.
See also: Abelam Yam Masks and Tops for more information on the yam lining ceremony and URLs for Abelam art and village photographs.
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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/