Ɵ Yuat River mask, Biwat people, or 'Mundugomor mask', Sepik, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Period: Late 19th century
H. 29.8 cm
Yuat River mask, Biwat people, or 'Mundugomor mask',
Sepik, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
H. 111/2 in
- Collected by Dr. Otto Schlaginhaufen, probably August 2, 1909
- Dresden Museum
- Arthur Speyer, Berlin, by exchange with the Museum, after 1921
- Wayne Heathcote, UK
- Private collection
- Margareat Mead, Tamberans und Tumbuans in New Guinea, AMNH Magazine, 1934.
This powerful biwat mask is fortunate to be very well documented. Dr. Otto Schlaginhaufen (1879-1973), a Swiss anthropologist, entomologist and botanist, if he was more interested in skulls than in objects, was lucky enough to discover a group of three biwat masks, most probably on August 2, 1909! Another of these masks is published in Island Ancestors, Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection, Allen Wardwell, University of Washington Press, 1994, No. 14 (Papers published in Dresden in 1910, Abhandlungen und Berichte des Staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde Dresden, p. 7).
He made two brief stays in New German Guinea and shipped some 260 objects to the Dresden Museum. He travelled on foot and by pirogue, with guards and porters, the Torricelli Mountains and the Ramu region without going to the Biwat. He was therefore able to find these masks either far from their region of origin (exchanges between the Mundugomor, Tchambuli and Iatmul populations were numerous both in terms of objects and in cultural and religious terms) or on board the ship Siar, sailing on the Sepik in August 1909.
Two hypotheses, in fact, can explain why Schlaginhaufen found these masks not on the Yuat River, which he did not explore, but in a village on the banks of the Sepik:
- either the 'Mundugomor' sold, after use, their ceremonies, songs and related objects - as Christian Kaufman thinks in the article in Pacific Arts, New Series, vol. 9, no. 1, 2010 - and Schlaginhaufen was then able to acquire the ritual objects.
- or the Mundugomor's subject populations who had their masks produced in the vast surrounding marshes delivered the same type of objects to other populations on the banks of the Sepik.
In fact, we are in the presence of one of the oldest 'Mundugomor masks' - made with stone tools - collected to our knowledge. Only the copy in the Boston Museum (MFA 1994.400) is given as collected in 1900. It was not until more than 10 years and the 1920s that other masks joined the Western collections (e.g. Kelm, 1966, ill. 206 to 210 collections 1924/1928).
These masks, secret objects if there were any, were shown by elders during initiation ceremonies. They were not dance masks. They represented the crocodile spirit Asin, an essential figure in the animal pantheon of the Biwat population.
Flute caps and water drums are used in similar ceremonies among the Mundugomor.
This is a mask from a distant era with a known history, which combines the aesthetic qualities, strength and ferocity of the Asin spirit with its aesthetic qualities.
Kaufmann in Shadows of New Guinea, 2006, (p. 106-107, ill. 8 and 9) Speiser's two photos showing the use of biwat masks in ceremonies on the banks of the lower Sepik, which is the subject of his 2010 article.
Location of the item France - 75008 Paris