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Yam Mask

early to mid-20th century
Papua New Guinea, Prince Alexander Mountains, Middle Sepik River region
Abelam people
Fiber, paint
H. 25 in. (63.5 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Yam masks of the Abelam people of northeast New Guinea are not worn but used to adorn enormous yams—as much as twelve feet long—which are grown and exchanged competitively by Abelam men. During an exchange ceremony, these are essentially transformed into human images representing forest spirits. Their heads are defined by the basketry masks, and "bodies" by lavish decorations featuring shell ornaments, feathers, brightly colored fruits, and other materials. The masks depict the heads of the spirits, with the distinctive peaked headdresses worn by men for important social and religious occasions.
    MPA curator Douglas Newton acquired rare forms of sculpture in New Guinea, such as the Inyai-Ewa figure on view in the exhibition, as well as exceptional examples of common objects. Newton's connoisseurship is evident in the unsurpassed quality of this yam mask. Virtually all Abelam men use such masks to decorate yams for ceremonial exchange and thousands of examples exist in museums and private collections. The exquisitely rendered features of this mask are exceptional and the perfect visual balance between the concentric bands comprising the eyes and headdress elevate it far above other examples of the genre.

  • Provenance

    Father Heinemans, Catholic Mission, Wewak, Papua New Guinea, until 1965; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978