Boiken Wooden Plates
Boiken Wooden Plates
Helen Dennett and Michael Hamson
Some of the classic and most recognizable objects of Boiken material culture are the circular, shallow wooden plates with carved designs decorating their bases. While once fairly common in nearly all Boiken households, they have by and large been replaced by plastic and aluminum cookware bought in nearby Wewak. Even so, it is not uncommon to see old wooden plates stacked in the rafters or on low shelves near the cooking fire in many of the more remote Boiken homes. Presently in the West, due to their collectability and accessibility in the art market, Boiken plates grace a good many collections of Oceanic art. Yet, for all their popularity and beauty, very little is known about these objects. The present essay is an attempt to at least record some basic information about the manufacture, distribution, trade, use, and significance of Boiken plates.
Woman with wooden plate, Sawarin village, 1988. Photo by Helen Dennett
The plates themselves are circular or ovoid in shape with diameters that range from a tiny 15 cm to an enormous 180 cm and are often fairly shallow, 5 cm to a relatively deep 12 cm or more--these deeper ones seem to be manufactured in the mountainous Nagum Boiken area around Sassoya (see illus. #2 for an exceptionally deep wooden "tub"). Plates are usually made from long-lasting hardwoods such as the buttress roots of garamut trees (Vitex cofassus) or from trees known locally as nar (rosewood, Pterocarpus indicus) and ton (Pometia pinnata). While the coastal and island areas have been carving these plates with steel tools for over 100 years, some of the inland plates were obviously carved with traditional stone and shell tools. It is not known exactly when production of Boiken plates ceased, but by the time Helen Dennett began her research in the early 1980s, the very few Boiken plate-makers she met were too frail and old to be informative about plate production.
The wooden plates were produced primarily in some coastal Boiken villages and the Nagum Boiken villages Paliama, Passam, Japaraka, Paparam, and Tangori (May 1990, p. 504). There is no doubt that other areas and individuals took it upon themselves to carve plates--for example, the very deep, archaic sub-style found in the mountains around Sassoya seem to be a local production. In the Nagum Boiken language, wooden plates are called huamp. In addition to the Boiken villages that made plates, several of their immediate neighbors carved wooden plates in very similar styles--such as the Mountain Arapesh, the Kairiru Islanders, Buna, Kis, and the people of the Murik Lakes.
Large wooden plates, bamboo trumpets and pig net, Sassoya area, photo by Henry Aufenagner, 1963/64, from "The Passing Scene in North-East New Guinea", 1972, plate VIII, page 171
The majority of the wooden plates produced were normal utilitarian objects used in preparing and serving food. There are references to their being used in rituals recorded by Henry Aufenanger, the Society of the Divine Word missionary who undertook several periods of anthropological research in the Boiken area starting in 1963. He reports on a Sagi spirit festival in the Passam area, where during part of the ceremony a "large wooden plate was filled with pork, sago, betel nuts, tobacco, etc. Four men carried it into the spirit house. There they called the names of all the spirits and said: "This is your food! Don't be hostile to men, women, and children! Give us much game and cause the gardens to grow fertile!'" Of course, after waiting for some time, all the important men then ate the food themselves (Aufenanger, 1975, p. 204). And in Boiken village itself, which lies on the coast west of Wewak, they had a special wooden plate named Kamunggu that was "intended for sacred purposes only" and was loaded with roasted sago and meat and placed in the spirit house prior to a sea voyage and kept there for the Sos spirit, who is called upon to "send us a good land-wind that our people may reach the islands safely" (Aufenanger, 1972, p. 18). Inland in the Prince Alexander Mountains is Sassoya village, where part of male initiation included piercing the penis with a cassowary bone dagger and having the blood flow into a wooden plate (ibid., p. 136).
In addition to the rituals cited above, wooden plates were brought to mourning ceremonies and given, often piled with food, to the grieving family of the deceased. It is not unusual for the relatives of the dead to reciprocate by presenting visitors to the ceremony with wooden plates as mementos and as signs of gratitude for attending (Figs. 1 and 2 for designs of plates used in this manner recorded by Helen Dennett). Plates were also given as marriage gifts (Figs. 3 & 4) and, at least in the Murik Lakes area, given to women when they underwent the ritual cutting, or cicatrization, of their chests (Figs. 5 & 6).
While regarded as essential items within Boiken villages, the plates were also objects of exchange and key elements in intercultural trading. The people of the Murik Lakes at the mouth of the Sepik River have long-standing ritual trade relationships with their inland Boiken neighbors. This includes both foodstuffs and finely woven baskets produced by the Murik people that are traded for Boiken wooden plates. Plates are exchanged for a wide variety of items such as shells, dogs, tobacco, clay bowls, sago, and the woven string bags: bilum. When a neighboring area has a particular "sing-sing" dance that is much admired, the right to perform it was sometimes purchased with wooden plates (Figs. 7, 8 & 9).
These ritual and exchange uses notwithstanding, the majority of Boiken wooden plates had far more ordinary uses, probably being left to lie on the earth floor, collecting food scraps to be fed to the family pig.
While the ritual and mundane uses of Boiken plates are reasonably well known, the significance or meaning of the carved designs decorating their bases is not. Aufenanger, in his book The Passing Scene in North-East New-Guinea, illustrated four motifs found in the Sassoya area that were emblems of local spirits (Fig. 10). The four-pointed motif, A, is the mark of Maretaxwa, a good spirit said to live at Numindogum village and whose emblem appeared on house entrances and masks (Aufenanger, 1972, p. 15, 171). The spiral, B, is the emblem of a female spirit and represents the female breast and appears on "knitted masks" worn around the eyes (ibid.). The opposed chevron design, C, is the mark of a mischievous and volatile spirit named Tsimbari that can be both good and evil, can impersonate living beings, and is said to be responsible for things that go missing (ibid., 162/3 & 168–170). Tsimbari's wife is named Pempem and her emblem is a stacked vertical chevron bisected by a straight line, D--which seems appropriate, as it is said that when she "lifts up her arms, light streams out from under them" (ibid., p. 17). We are lucky to have this fairly early information which nicely augments the research and motif data that Helen Dennett recorded in the 1980s.
George Bai and family taking plates of food to the cult house in Big Murik village, 1986, photo by Helen Dennett.
Notwithstanding the Aufenanger and Dennett research, there are several factors that complicate the study of these motifs and designs. First, as already noted, shallow circular wooden dishes were carved extensively by several of the Boiken people's neighbors. Because the plates moved about so much, going from one cultural group to the next and potentially on to a third, it is very difficult to isolate a particular area's motifs and designs. If a plate could with certainty be attributed to a certain village, all the old carvers who might have been able to accurately discuss the significance of their designs had passed on by the time Helen Dennett started her research in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Thus, without firsthand information from the carvers themselves, one must rely on the interpretations of people a generation or two removed. Under these circumstances a common problem occurs where the label or name of a particular motif can get conflated with its potential meaning. For example, one of the most characteristic designs on the base of these plates is a stylized figurative motif with limbs that bend and curve around to form a circular base. By far the most frequent response Dennett recorded was that this represents a frog, or marke. So confusion arises--does the motif resemble a frog to the informants or does it have some symbolic significance relating to frogs? Paul Roscoe thinks the former is probably more accurate. For the Yangoru Boiken where he studied, frogs held no cultural import that might warrant their gracing the bases of dozens of wooden plates. He suggests that the frog designation was more an easy visual label than an accurate reference to any potential meaning (Roscoe, pers. comm., 3 Dec. 2010). Yet, as potentially misleading or inaccurate as these remarks are, they are all that we have, and the information at least provides some cultural insight into the Boiken people and is thus worthy of adding to the meager historical record concerning their art.
In her years visiting villages in Boiken territory and its surroundings, on foot and by boat, Helen Dennett has made rubbings from the bases of 1,400 wooden plates. Most of these designs came with no comment from their present owners except for when the generic refrain "tumbuna samting" (something from the ancestors) was given. However, a number of people did describe and name what the motifs represented. As mentioned previously, the frog--marke--response was the most common, coming up 30 times with regard to plates found in Boiken villages and on those in Murik, Kairiru, Buna, and Kis language villages (Figs. 11, 12, 13 & 14). The designs range from the relatively naturalistic portrayal on plate 14 from Kis village to the nearly abstract motif of plate 12 from Karau village in the Murik Lakes. The numerous variations on this theme are a testament to the creative freedom often enjoyed by Papua New Guinean artists. Motifs are often clan specific and handed down from generation to generation, but individual carvers are free to reinterpret that design as long as it does not encroach on that of another clan.
Murik Lakes woman with basket, Mendam village, 1990. Photo by Helen Dennett
A large number of plates have distinct spirit faces on them. The design normally centers around a classic circular pattern that then extends into four triangular or wedge-shape fields, each of which has a pair of slanted eyes and an arrow-tipped nose (Figs. 15, 16 & 17). Interestingly, the spirits represented are both ancestral and ones from the bush--often water spirits that live in creeks and rivers. Dennett recorded seven plates that had designs associated with spirits of the dead, kaamba (Figs. 18, 19 & 20). Here, as with the bush spirit designs, the faces are interconnected, almost always encircling the central design or seemingly pulled from it. When interconnected, the spirit faces form a band that surrounds and encloses the circular design suggesting not only an aesthetic choice but a symbolic order or relationship between the motifs. Far rarer are plates with full figures, devoid of other motifs or designs, such as number 104 in this catalog.
Another recognizable subset of Boiken plates has what appears to be a flying fox carved in relief on the base. The animals have large hinged wings with rounded tips; short, thin legs; and heads carved in a three-dimensional manner. Often the body is formed around the ubiquitous circular design field at the center. The circular motif with its intricate curvilinear or geometric pattern can seem incongruous to the rest of the naturalistic and organic animal figure. It is as if the two designs are distinct, separate entities forced to reside in the same limited space. Perhaps the central pattern is a standard or required element that must be incorporated into the overall design no matter how it fits aesthetically. Yet because of this incongruity, its forced aesthetic, the circle motif at the center declares its essential, core nature. Because of this consideration, when a plate has a flying fox carved without the central design it can seem, in some way, diminished by its absence.
Bird designs were found on eight plates recorded by Dennett. Only rarely is the design recognizably avian in form (Fig. 21 and plate 112 in this catalog). Most often the bird designs are seemingly abstract, bearing little visual resemblance to their winged referent (Figs. 22, 23 & 24). Sometimes a plate with a classic spirit face has a design element that suggests or confirms its meaning--as with plate 23 with its wedge-shaped tail feather pattern similar to plate 112 in this catalog.
Another popular motif Dennett recorded is called kabim, which, in the Murik language villages, is the name for small oval bailer shell ornaments with an overlay of intricately carved turtle shell. These are produced by the people of the Murik Lakes--in the literature such items are often referred to as kapkap. While kabim are not necessarily a Boiken product, they did sometimes adorn the woven bags Murik people traded to the Boiken for plates (photo 5). We illustrate two out of eleven kabim designs from Murik Lakes plates (Figs. 25 & 26) to show the similarity to popular Boiken motifs such as the frog on plate 12; the hawk, moliam peri, of plate 22; and the vine, maranga, design on plate 27.
In the Murik Lakes, Dennett documented a number of plates engraved with designs that were described by informants as cicatrization marks associated with the ritual scarification patterns applied to a woman's chest and arms (Figs. 28 & 29). In her study of plates in the Boiken area, Dennett did not meet any informant who named designs as being associated with cicatrization marks on women. However, the practice itself was an important part of the first stage of female initiation in the Yangoru area. In 1979 Roscoe remembers seeing older women with sun- and star-like designs cicatrized just above the breast, and the more marks a woman had indicated how "strong" a woman she was (Roscoe, pers. comm., 2 Nov. 2010). The design of Murik plate 28 is quite similar to the frog form depicted on the Boiken plate 13, the kabim motif of plate 26, and the central portion of the hawk plate from Wagamut village (Murik language) plate 23. Such similarity in aesthetics between plates from different cultural areas representing, supposedly, an entirely different thing, underscores the difficulty involved in any attempt to isolate patterns and discern stylistic trends.
Dennett recorded 13 plates with designs on them described by their owners as the "butterfly" (Figs. 30 & 31). Both kabim motifs and plates associated with cicatrization have sometimes been likened to butterfly wings (Dennett, pers. comm., 29 Oct. 2010). Considering the configuration of a butterfly's two double-lobed wings on either side of a narrow lenticular body, this seems like an apt and plausible reference. While there is no direct evidence of this, the butterfly's association with metamorphosis and transformation is a common symbol of initiation worldwide, and on several Boiken artifacts there are direct references to either larvae or caterpillars.2
While the sun as a referent for Boiken plate designs is nearly absent, there are motifs and designs attributed to the moon and the stars.3 For the moon, Dennett recorded six plates, four from Kis village, one from the Buna village of Boig, and one from the Boiken village of Saure. We illustrate the Boiken language plate and one from Kis as representative examples (Figs. 32 & 33). Aufenanger recorded the following myth regarding the origin of the moon from the Boiken village of Passam, a major plate-producing center:
The term for moon is pobmo. Once, when the Passam killed and ate a woman, her genitals were given to a man who tried to smoke them but they escaped like a torch to the sky. All the men stood on one another's shoulders until they reached the sky and the uppermost man tried to catch the moon with a long bamboo pole. But the backbone of the man who stood on the ground broke; the whole line of men fell down and died. So we can see the moon with its nice bright light. The moon's special name is Hierin (Aufenanger, 1975, p. 185/6).
The twelve star-design plates Dennett recorded were all in the Murik Lakes or Buna languages groups (Figs. 34 & 35) but are worth mentioning here, as this motif is also common in the Nagum Boiken area around Sassoya.4
To illustrate the diversity of designs and their potential referents, we should mention taro (Figs. 36 & 37)), turtles (Figs. 38 & 39), the vine known as maranga that is said to have magical properties that cause people who come near it to faint or become disoriented (Figs. 16 & 40), crabs (Figs. 41 & 42), fish (Fig. 43), lizards (Fig. 44), crocodile (Fig. 45), star fish (Fig. 46), fish intestines (Fig. 47), and, curiously, a closed door (Fig. 48).
In the 1950s, '60s and into Independence in 1975, the Boiken people became more involved in the cash economy. Trade store goods became available to more and more villagers. With the increasing accessibility of aluminum, enamel, and plastic dishes, the production of wood ones eventually ceased. When traditional trading partners started to require money for their goods, wooden plates became largely obsolete.
While it is still possible to come across families who continue to keep their wooden plates, they remain by and large unused and are kept mostly as mementos of an earlier way of life. As social and economic changes reduced the traditional value of the plates in the villages, a number of Western artifact dealers eagerly collected them. Consequently, Boiken plates have been dispersed into many of the world's public and private art collections. While the ethnographic information on their original production and use is very limited, at least we have the rubbings of 1,400 plate designs recorded by Helen Dennett. Without the cultural data to support an analysis of the designs, it is hard to say how informative such a study would be. Yet the volume of extant plates and their designs serves as a valuable testimony to the artistic talents of the Boiken people. That the meaning of the designs continues to elude us, and that the patterns seem recognizable but are not necessarily what they seem to be, all contribute to and enhance their allure.
1 As an art catalog, the plates that Michael Hamson chooses to illustrate tend toward the rare and exceptional, with a higher percentage having figurative elements.
2 See the segmented, larvae-like projections from the shoulders of Figure 11 and the similar pair of rounded, knob extensions coming off the reverse side of the Nagum cassowary bone dagger of Figure 138. Such highly decorated and very sharp daggers were probably used in the male initiation process to pierce the penis to draw away some of the "bad" female blood remaining in young boys.
3 In Handradogum village, Aufenanger acquired a "huge wooden dish" used for initiation and "on its back the symbol of the sun is carved." The plate is now in the anthropological museum of Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan (Aufenanger, 1972, p. 149).
4 Of all the trekking Dennett did in the Boiken area, one region she did not cover were the villages in the low mountains around Sassoya.