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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Guide to Sepik River Carvings

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The people in the villages along the Sepik River and its tributaries are the most active carvers in New Guinea. Each village has its distinctive styles.

[Fine detail being added in white paint to a large, detailed carving of men and crocodiles, 1994: 19k]

Figure 1: Soc painting Tambanum clan designs, Angoram Service Camp.

Middle Sepik River villages (map below):

Above Pagwi on the Upper Sepik and its tributaries:

Below Angoram on the Lower Sepik and along the coast:

[Middle Sepik River, ESP, PNG: 9k]

The true Middle Sepik starts just above Pagwi and continues down to the Sepik's junction with the Yuat River. Not shown are three main roads that come out from Wewak on the coast to the north side of the river. The upper road goes to Pagwi, a middle road to Timbunke and the lower road to Angoram.

The Sepik itself is a work-in-progress. Over 700 miles (1,100 km.) long, it is one of the world's great, meandering rivers like the Amazon or the Congo, similar in its floods to the Nile or the Mississippi before they were channeled and dammed. During the wet season, the shallow Chambri Lakes and the whole floodplain of the Sepik-Ramu basin fill up with hundreds of square miles of water. In the dry season, the smaller rivers and the lake shrink into narrow, shallow channels called barets. Numerous bits of cut-off river meanders form ox-bow lakes called raunwaras.

As the Sepik changes course, whole villages may move or groups split off to form new camps. (Also note that the spelling of place names is not totally standardized.) The major language group on the Middle Sepik is Iatmul, part of the Ndu language family. Each village is an independent unit, although there are clan and trading links between villages. Research sponsored by the PNG National Museum shows that the development of the freshwater Sepik River, the Ramu River and their tributaries is relatively recent. In the Pleistocene, the Sepik-Ramu floodplain was a large, salt-water inland sea. In the dry season, old coral reefs are sometimes exposed along the river bank at Angoram.

The staple food is saksak, flour made from the pith of the sago palm (Metroxylum rumphii). Although the flour is primarily starch, it provides a reliable source of food which does not have to be cultivated. Large quantities can be gathered, processed and stored in a relatively short period of time. The diet is normally supplemented by fish, some wild game and temporary gardens during the dry season.

This relative stability provides the time to create complex ceremonies and the art that accompanies them. Nothing lasts long in the tropics with the humidity, floods, fire and termites. Perhaps that is one reason why Sepik carvers are so prolific. Their raw materials may be mostly limited to wood, clay, feathers and shell, but their inventiveness is not.

Sepiks are a tough, practical people who survive in a difficult environment and who create world-class art. It's become common to refer to much of contemporary Sepik art as tourist art. However, Sepiks are heirs to a great tradition which is going strong, changing and evolving to meet new needs while sustaining old roots. If a mask brings luck in hunting or if it brings cash to buy the luxury of tinned fish, the net result is still food in the household. Artifacts are also one of the few sources of cash income for things like school fees.

The best carvers are serious about their work. Once in the Christian Bookstore in Wewak, I watched Soc search for an hour through dozens of school-grade watercolor brushes looking for a decent one. If you ask a carver about a piece, it always comes from a traditional base, even if changes have been made in the form. Carvings are made for ceremony; carvings are made for sale; some carvings are used and then sold when replacements are made; carvings are made to strengthen and beautify everyday items; they are part of human life on the Sepik.

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. 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. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0