Sepik Sculpture

The most common artifact brought back from Papua New Guinea would be a Sepik Sculpture or Sepik Masks. Sepik sculpture vary enormously in collectible value. A Sepik Figure made for sale to tourists has minimal value but one made for indigenous use is highly collectible and valuable.

 

The Sepik River has many different language groups and art styles. This article looks at the different styles of Sepik sculptures with images to help readers identify where a Sepik figure comes from.

 

I buy old indigenously used Sepik sculpture and if you want to sell a Sepik river sculpture please feel free to contact me. If you have a Sepik River sculpture and want to know what it is worth feel free to send me an image. I would love to see it.

 

 

 

 

Sepik sculpture general

The village industry of making Sepik sculptures for sale to visitors started in the early 1960′s in the Middle Sepik. Early explorers and travelers bought Sepik sculptures as ethnographic collectibles. When villagers sold figures that they had created for worship they carved and empowered new figures. It didn’t take long before local Sepik carvers were manufacturing Figures specifically for sale.

Dealers in the 1960’s soon realized that new pieces were not wanted by collectors and museums. When they collected from villages they would request old black pieces. Sepik villagers soon realized old pieces sold better and started making old looking pieces. The art of the indigenously made “fake” was born.

It does not take much experience to tell an indigenously used piece of Sepik Art from a new for sale tourist carving. It takes years of experience, however, to tell a genuine old tribally used item from a good indigenously made fake. Today some Sepik carvers still specialize in making fakes that look old and indigenously used. Some of these carvers are so skilled that their art hangs on museum walls and in art galleries.

Sepik sculptures are amongst the most diverse group of artworks found anywhere in the world. This is because despite being a small area geographically the Sepik is culturally diverse.

To go into detail about each art style area of the Sepik would take a thick book. In fact, several good thick books about Sepik art are available including Kunst Von Sepik, Art of the sepik river and Myth and Magic. The following is an overview of examples from each area.

Sepik sculpture by Area

Lower Sepik sculpture

Lower Sepik sculpture include figures from islands just offshore the Sepik Delta. These islands include the Schouten islands and Manum Island. The Sepik River delta and the Murik Lakes area is particularly well known for its powerful figures.

Older Sepik sculpture tends to have pierced nasal septums and pierced ears. The faces of the sculptures are the same as those on the masks as they represent the same ancestral deities. Figures from the Lower Ramu are also very similar because they have a very similar culture.

Lower Sepik sculpture should have near perfect symmetry and balance. Lower Sepik carvers valued visual precision. They aspired to be as skilled as a spider because of the meticulous complexity of spiders webs.

This area not only produced large almost life-sized figures but also produced smaller personal figures and charms.

Yuat

Sepik sculpture from Yuat River

Yuat river is best known by collectors for their powerful sacred flute stopper Figures and Pole top figures. Yuat flute stopper figures often have an exaggerated forehead and pearl shell eyes. The chin and the top of the heads are often pierced for attachment of feathers or human hair. Pole top figures are extremely rare but are one of the most collectible pieces of New Guinea art.

The largest village on the Yuat River is Biwat. Often sculpture from this area are better known as Biwat figures. The Biwat also has a well-known shield with three faces and fantastic hair adornments.

Unlike other Sepik communities, there were no permanent ceremonial houses on the Yuat River. All ritual objects belonged to extended families or individuals and were in their owner’s homes

Abelam Figures

 

The Abelam live in the Prince Alexander Mountains north of the Sepik River. They practise a complex 8 stage initiation cycle. In the final initiation rites the initiate finally gets to see brilliantly painted figures.

 

Abelam sculpture all have a similar looking face. Old examples have a pierced nasal septum.

 

Abelam sculpture s are common but great old examples are not. Figures often incorporate hornbill and cockatoo heads. The Abelam are also well known for their ceremonial house decorations like lintels.

Iatmul Middle Sepik figures

Iatmul Sepik sculpture

Figures from the Iatmul are perhaps the most recognizable of all the arts of the Sepik River. Sculptures are typically elaborately carved sculptures. The sculptures have painted flowing curvilinear designs.

The Iatmul people are a large community with many of their villages situated on the banks of the Sepik River. Each village has one or more impressive ceremonial houses. Figures and ritual objects essential to the well being of the community were in these houses.

 

Traditionally, the Iatmul were the dominant culture of the Sepik River. They had a reputation as highly skilled headhunting raiders. Early collectors often used Iatmul guides and based themselves in Iatmul villages.

A lot of traditional tribal art was from this area and heavily collected in the early 1960′s. It became an early manufacturing centre for early tourist art. It is still the most prolific art producing area in Papua New Guinea today. Small ships full of tourists buy thousands of Sepik carvings from here every year.

Sawos sculpture

Sawos sculpture are very similar to Iatmul figures. The Sawos have a close relationship with the Iatmul and share many cultural aspects. The Sawos Live just north of the Iatmul in the grasslands away from the Sepik’s floodplain.

Unique to the Sawos are Malu Plaques. These figures are flat with raised noses and intricately carved. They are amongst the most skillfully carved examples of primitive art.

 

 

Hunstein Mountains sculpture

 

The Hunstein mountains are the home of the Bahinemo people. The Bahinemo produce some of the most fascinating sculptures anywhere on earth called Garra.

 

Male Dancers carry Garra in their hands during initiation ceremonies and they come in two types. The first is opposing hooks on a long thin curved backbone. The second is broader in the back and often has a stylized face in the center. This second type is often classified as a mask although it is never worn.

 

Old Hunstein sculptures are rare and very collectible. Most of the examples that come onto the market are late 1960’s made for sale examples.

Chambri Lakes

Chambri lakes are in the southern side of the middle Sepik. Artistically it is better known for its clay pots but did produce great sculpture.

The sculpture is similar to the Iatmul and most figures from this area have pre 1960’s collection dates.

Chambri Lakes sculpture is rare.

 

Yiman Sepik sculpture

The Yimam people live in the headwaters of the Blackwater River and the nearby Korewori River. They carve distinctive one-legged sculptures called Yipwon.
 
Yipwon is a bold reduction of the human form into an almost two-dimensional plane. They stand on one leg a with hooks around a central element. This central element is the liver or soul of the Yipwon protected by the hooked ribs.
 
These figures assisted in hunting and war. After a successful hunt, blood, meat, and liver from the animal impaled to the hooks of the Yipwon figure fed it.
 
Each figure represented a named spirit being and stay at the back of the ceremonial house.

Porapora and Keram River

 
Keram River and Porapora River were one of the first areas to lose its traditional style and develop new styles for sale to tourists. The main reason for this is that they are close to Angoram station one of the largest Sepik airstrips and an early gateway to the Sepik.
Early art from this area is rare and new tourist arts like storyboards are prolific. Traditionally the area had some unique art forms which include clay over cane plaques which represent deities.

Korewari / Korowori Sculptures

 

Korewari sculptures are some of the oldest figures in Papua New Guinea. Abandoned in caves for hundreds of years they have a dry eroded patina.

 
Figures from Korewari first came to the notice of the outside world in the early 1960s. Field collectors at that time began moving further away from the Sepik River to source more traditional art. Korewari sculptures are exceptionally rare and only about 250 of these figures exist.
 
Korewari sculptures are vessels inhabited by Aripa spirits who assist with hunting game. If the spirit has been correctly appeased it will track down and kill the desired prey’s spirit. When a hunter died, his Aripa spirits life ended and the Korewari sculpture left in a remote cave with the hunter’s bones.
 
Korewari sculptures are extremely rare and highly collectible. There are a fair few fakes made for sale so buyer beware.

Washkuk Sepik Sculpture

 

Washkuk figures are associated with Yam ceremonies. These Ceremonies are held to ensure a successful yam harvest. The three main consecutive ceremonies are Yena-ma Minja-ma and Nogwi. Each ceremony has an associated figure.

Washkuk sculptures are quite common but good early examples are not. Washkuk sculptures are sometimes referred to as Kwoma sculptures.

 

 

 

 

Yena Figures are for the first ceremony yena-ma. Yena figures are a stylized human head on a long spike.

They represent the human soul.

Old examples often have downward facing spikes on the back of the head.

 

 

 

 

 

Minja figures are used at the second ceremony and are carved to look like a water spirit associated with fertility.

Great old examples have the protruding tongue that then ripples down the chin

 

 

 

Nogwe Figures are for the final and most important ceremony. Usually, two female Nogwe figures are placed on the top of a large pile of yams in the men’s house.

The ceremony can only be attended by the bravest warriors and most fertile men.

The best old examples tend to be more fluid.

Boiken Sepik Sculpture

 
The Boiken live along the coast and in the Prince Alexander Mountains near Wewak. The most recognizable figures come from Yangoru and are usually flattish and often in a squatting position.
Best book on the Boiken is Art of the Boiken by Michael Hamson

Torracelli Mountains figures

 

The Torracelli mountains are south of Aitape and produce flat figures often in a squatting position.

These sculptures are similar to those of the Boiken Yangaro but tend to be wider.

Torrecelli mountain sculptures are sometimes called Arapesh figures.

Sepik sculpture

This is just some examples, so I hope you can appreciate the vast variety of Sepik sculptures. The Sepik is probably the most prolific figure-producing region in the World. As Oceanic Art, they are extremely expressive and come in a vast variety of sizes forms and functions. It is a great pity that the majority of people who visit the Sepik River today only get to see the modern tribal art produced for sale to tourists. They often miss the fantastic variety of other figures this diverse region has to offer.

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy my article on New Guinea sculpture and  Aboriginal sculpture.

More images of Sepik Sculpture

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