Abelam Yam Masks Abelam Yam Masks By Michael Hamson One of the broad appeals of tribal art is that it grants us a window into a time and place excitingly unlike our own. The tribal object serves as the material manifestation of an idea and way of life often unfathomably different from the one we live or ever conceive of living. It is that striking difference, that enormous gulf between mindsets, that, when beautifully rendered, makes a tribal artwork so compelling. This, in part, is what makes Abelam yam masks so intriguing. The very idea of decorating and transforming an eight-foot-long tuber into an ancestral spirit to be displayed and admired is probably hard for most people to comprehend. So to fully appreciate the cane and wooden masks that adorn these long yams, one must start at the beginning, that is, what makes yams so special? While there are over 60 varieties of yams grown in the Abelam area, they can basically be categorized into two groups—long yams and short yams. Short yams are grown with an emphasis on quantity, and while they do have their own public displays, very little “art” is involved. The growing, displaying, and exchanging of long yams, however, is a different matter. With their being a significant focus of Abelam ritual and ceremony, long yams are thus connected to virtually all genres of their art. From the tall, peaked ceremonial houses, korombo, where male initiation and the passing of ancestral yam magical knowledge takes place, to the massive wood figurative sculptures, ngwallndu, lying in repose inside—all exist to reinforce the fundamental trinity of Abelam male existence—yam, man, and ancestral spirit. Short yam display, Kragamon village, Bukie culture area, West Yangoru district. Photo Michael Hamson 1997. To understand the unique place yams hold in Abelam life, one must comprehend the qualities that elevate them above any other foodstuff or garden produce. First, they are universally acknowledged to be the preferred food for the Abelam. Also, while yams are, of course, alive biologically, they also are endowed with a spirit. That yam spirit is personal to a particular family and has been passed down from generation to generation in much the same way one’s own spirit passes from parents to children. Thus, by eating yams, the same spirit that nourished one’s ancestors is ingested and makes its way into one’s heart—the source of being and emotion. A woman, of course, has her own family yam line that has been passed down as well. When she marries she brings this yam strain into the gardens of her husband. As the couple lives together and eats from each other’s yam gardens, their respective yam spirits intermix within them—ultimately enhancing domestic harmony. Even sexual intercourse and the comingling of vital fluids is said to build spiritual harmony by allowing the person to better relate to their spouse’s ancestral yams. Abelam family, Patigo village area, the Wosera. Photo Michael Hamson 1996. Not surprisingly, yam spirits have their own personalities. Short yam spirits are considered wily and frisky. They can sense their owner’s footfalls as he approaches the garden and have the inconvenient tendency to scatter, making it difficult for them to be harvested. On the other hand, the spirits of long yams are thought to be serious and mature with a close relationship to the ancestral spirits. Long yams and the ancestral spirits are said to pass their days in grave comradeship until the time comes when the long yams are ready to be harvested. Unlike their mischievous short yam brethren, long yams send out bird and insect messengers to politely alert the grower it is time to be taken out of the ground. The growing of long yams is a process laden with ritual and magic and the mastery of these techniques forms the prime objective of male initiation. Long yam gardens are placed well away from the normal gardens and are taboo for women and uninitiated men to venture upon. During the growing season men must refrain from sexual intercourse and any physical contact with a woman in menstruation. In fact, long yams are said to have a keen sense of smell and can identify whether the grower has broken such taboos and, if so, will literally shrivel in the ground. The process of planting is especially laborious, with the dense clay soil needing to be dug up ahead of time to the depth a man hopes the long yam will fill as it grows. To do this rough work a large hardwood digging stick, gisa, surmounted by an ancestral spirit (no. 52 in this catalog) is employed. The dirt from the hole is then hand crushed and replaced, creating a softer, more inviting environment for the yam to lengthen into the void. Long yams are planted on hillsides so that horizontal inspection tunnels can be dug downslope to intersect the growing yam, allowing its owner to monitor its progress and to feed it magical substances. One such elixir is water collected from spider holes then used as a wash to bathe the large ancestral spirit wooden figures residing in the ceremonial house. The watery residue imbued with the paint and essence of the ancestral spirit is fed to the yam. The magic solution is said to excite and energize the yam—causing it to vibrate and stretch forward. If after all these efforts a particularly fine example is produced, a man will give it the name of his ngwallndu ancestral spirit to honor that spirit’s role in the yam’s growth. Three ngwallndu ancestral spirit figures, eastern Abelam area. Photo Anthony Forge, 1963. Anthony Forge Papers. MSS 411. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. The long yam takes roughly five to seven months to reach its full length. When harvesting, special tools are used—a shorter, spear-like staff called a kirku and even carved cassowary bone daggers kept intentionally clean and white (as the color of the inside of a yam) to help do the final uncovering (no. 128). In the end, if a man has strictly observed all taboos and has put in the hard work of digging the deep hole, hand crushing the soil, preparing the magical solutions, and was successful in enlisting the help of the ancestral spirits, the result will be a truly magnificent tuber. Because what is invested in the yam is a man’s magic, his hereditary yam line, the power of his ancestors, and his hard work, a man can justly view the yam as something his own, sometimes referring to it as “my child” (Kaberry, 1941, p. 356). Long yams prior to display. Yangisaku village. Photo Michael Hamson 1998. The harvested yam can safely be stored for up to eight months. This allows all the yams grown by an entire hamlet to be assembled and displayed at one time. Often lengths of bamboo or cane are cut the length of the yam and displayed outside the yam storage house to tantalize passersby. The difficulty of growing seriously long yams is attested to by the fact that it will often be decades separating a group’s yam displays. A man’s lifework in the long yam gardens can be seen in the bundle of bamboo sticks, each representing a decidedly historic example, a man keeps as a memento and tally. Yangisaku village. Photo Michael Hamson 1998. Yangisaku village. Photo Michael Hamson 1998. Yangisaku village. Photo Michael Hamson 1998. Preparation for a long yam display begins months in advance as the last big yams are being harvested, the decorations assembled, and masks repainted. As the day approaches, announcements are pounded out on the large slit-gong garamut drums signaling all nearby villages to participate and witness the impending festivities. This could amount to representatives from fifteen to twenty-five villages being present (Kaberry 1942, p. 337). On the actual day of the event hundreds of people mill about, conversing with friends, accepting food from the hosts, and, of course, appraising the yams. People show their appreciation for individual yams by swiping a line of white powdered lime on the body of the yam. It is an important time when Big Men and the entire hamlet wear their best woven and shell ornaments with pride. Because the yams will eventually be competitively exchanged, there is an undercurrent of tension as “the ritual specialists reap the glory of the harvest; they chant clan songs, boast of their ritual prowess, and belittle that of their ceremonial partners” (Kaberry 1942, p. 352). Long yam display, “Kwani Wapi display,” X20. Photo Anthony Forge May 18, 1963. Anthony Forge Papers. MSS 411. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Photo Michael Hamson 1999. Photo Michael Hamson 1997. Long yams are grown to be exchanged. Each man, from the time he is a child, is paired with an exchange partner, tchambera—who is usually the son of his father’s tchambera. Throughout his life a man tries to grow enormous yams that he first proudly displays and then, after the ceremony, gives to his tchambera. The tchambera reluctantly accepts the gift knowing that he must in the not-too-distant future reciprocate with an equivalent or larger yam—and if not, suffer the humiliation that entails. Because a yam represents a man’s hard work, the strength of his family yam line, his magical skill, and, most importantly, the power of his ancestors, not being able to grow a yam the same size or larger than his tchambera’s is a public embarrassment no man willfully sustains. The highly competitive nature of long yam exchanges with their potential dire consequences was in the old days seen as a substitute for actual warfare. When displayed, long yams are decorated with the same finery a young man wears at the completion of his initiation process. Both are resplendent with shell jewelry, headbands, shell currency rings, boar’s tusk pectorals, cassowary feather headdresses, etc.—all to transform the yam and the man into the ancestral spirit whose beneficence and power created both. The decorated long yam and the public ceremony, I was told, were more about honoring the ancestral spirit than about any individual living man’s glory. While there are a number of the elements of a decorated long yam that are of potential interest to art collectors—namely the boar’s tusk pectorals, karaut (nos. 143–145), and carved wood decorations (no. 42)—the most widely collected are the cane and wooden yam masks. As Diane Sheehan points out in her essay, the cane yam masks are fashioned from the Lygodium vine, negwa, using the coil technique. The final forms cane yam masks take vary widely. Often they seem to be a miniature version of the helmet masks, bapa kumbu, men wear prior to male initiation to go around the village designating coconut trees and garden areas to be used to feed the “spirits” during the weeks-long seclusion. The fact that these cane yam masks are just smaller versions of the helmet masks has been falsely reinforced by a common misconception of the name. Throughout the Wosera, cane yam masks are called bapa mene, which sounds a lot like bapa mini—or small bapa. But the correct word, mene, means eye, as in eye of the bapa, not small bapa. The variety of forms of cane yam masks is remarkable and a testament to both the artistic license given within the Abelam culture and the creativity of individual artists. As with the growing of long yams, Abelam artists are always looking for the chance to outdo their contemporaries—either in technical virtuosity or imaginative compositions. The collection of yam masks I present in this catalog illustrates this incredible originality and resourcefulness. They range from extreme stylization and abstraction, as with no. 94, to the surprising naturalism of no. 71. There are styles with definitively wedge-shaped faces (nos. 69 & 70) and many with relatively flat faces (nos. 82 to 90). There is often an explicit avian form to many, with heads looking like chickens or roosters (nos. 75, 77 & 98). Notwithstanding the incredible formal diversity and individual artistic freedom of yam masks, obvious regional and clan styles can be discerned. The great, expressive yam masks nos. 82 and 83 are obviously related, with simple oval eyes dissected by the sharp ridge of the nose. Each has distinctive scallop ears and nearly identically composed headdresses. One of my favorite styles is that of yam masks nos. 91–93 having circular faces with eyes inset within a raised round ridge. Then, of course, there are the very regimented yam masks of the Ilahita Arapesh, such as nos. 95 & 96. The tightness of construction and severity of composition suggest a more rigid cultural tradition. In many of these instances, it would not be out of the question to start identifying the work of individual artists. Besides coiled cane yam masks there are wooden ones—both hardwood and balsawood. The hardwood varieties most often come from the central and eastern Abelam areas. In my opinion, the finest hardwood yam masks are actually from the Bukie culture centered around the area between Kaboibus and Ulupu villages. Here the masks often have a handle or projection coming off the bottom (nos. 59–62). On wooden yam masks the faces are more stylistically tied to the ngwallndu ancestral spirits manifested in the large wooden sculptures or on the rows of heads comprising the horizontal ceremonial house lintels. The volumes are rounded and smooth with classic painted designs that correspond to specific spirit personages. The very light balsawood yam masks from the Wosera area have a much larger stylistic variation. This is probably due to both the area being awash in talented artists and that the malleability of the softwood encourages a certain flamboyancy. Often the volumes are fuller, giving the faces a pleasing plumpness, and are sometimes juxtaposed with fine, delicate features (no. 54). I illustrate three cane yam masks in this catalog that incorporate plastic toy or doll faces in their composition. In the West, a discarded or broken plastic child’s toy would not necessarily hold much allure. Not the case for the Abelam. The Abelam artist is far more liberal and tolerant with regard to new materials. Western paints and chalks were quickly accepted and incorporated into their artwork. The bright, bold colors of teachers’ chalks were swiftly co-opted by the old men wanting to paint their yam masks. Acrylic paints with their rock-hard permanence were also frequently adopted. The plastic toy faces with their delicate yet indestructible features surely must have seemed very attractive to the yam mask makers. That the toys were foreign and coming from overseas probably increased their cachet among the Abelam. Then again, let us not forget that humor and the desire to shock and astonish are also qualities much admired by the Abelam artist. That yam masks enjoy such a diversity of forms, styles, and materials is understandable. While figurative sculpture is the domain of the clan, yam masks are often the property of individuals. The wooden ancestral spirit carvings thus stick closer to the traditional canon passed down from each generation. Yam masks seem much less constrained. The long yams they adorn are the products of a man’s own physical efforts, his mastery of garden magic, and his relationship with his ancestral spirits. Thus the decorated yam both honors the ancestral spirit and brings prestige and recognition to the grower. The yam mask beautifully serves both of these roles—nodding to the past, the history, and the group while celebrating the individual’s achievement. Be they made with cane or wood, yam masks often manifest the finest work of an Abelam artist—steeped in tradition but granted the freedom of individual brilliance.