House mask

Photo: Susan Cole

House mask

This mother's gaze once watched men in a Sepik River village as they entered and left a ceremonial house. Perched at the top of the house, she was the face of a mythic woman, the originator of all life. Men occupied her house—her body—to be initiated, to relax and to surround themselves with a sense of the sacred. In our attempt to re-create and imagine the effects she once had, we can see plainly our own cultural biases. Do you recognize this image as feminine? Do you think of art as something that is enduring or is it ephemeral? Can a single mask be welcoming, menacing and mythically charged all at the same time?
Rattan, shell, feathers, wood, pigment, fiber
60 x 34 x 17 1/2 in. (152.4 x 86.4 x 44.5 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: [Ed Primus, Los Angeles, California]; sold to Katherine White (1929-1980), Seattle, Washington, 1961; bequeathed to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view

Mythic Imperatives

Femininity is forceful in this mask, which is not meant to portray any one woman but is the face of the ultimate creator, whose image refers to mythic events. In the men's house she presides over, primal time merges with the present. Iatmul people speak of the world being created from a vast, expansive sea. It was a crocodile that brought earth up from the bottom of the sea and carried it to the surface on its back until an island emerged and became firm. In the present, whenever the crocodile moves, the earth trembles and earthquakes result. When annual floods cover the floor of the house, people speak of it as a floating island in a river borne up by the primal crocodile.

Men enter the house by passing under her skirts made of fiber. Once inside, they make their way to specific sitting platforms, which are arranged to indicate distinctions between dominant clans. Great house posts offer visual and physical support and are carved to depict crocodiles, pigs, fish and waves of the primal sea. The upper floor serves as a room with higher ceremonial status and holds sacred musical instruments that are never to be seen by the uninitiated.

On ceremonial occasions, the men's house is the dynamic center of attention. Performances by masked figures animate the grounds in front of the house, complex rhythms of slit gongs and vibrant bamboo flutes resound through the interior, fresh decorations made of plant materials cover many surfaces, and new pigments are painted on the performers and house figures. Such efforts all add up to a powerful reminder of the great mythic world order.
Canoe prow, n.d., Melanesian, 81.17.1466

Another Mother Taken Out of Context

This Iatmul mask of a mother was once positioned at the pinnacle of a sacred building that housed a full program of painting and sculpture designed to evoke devotional behavior. Similarly, a medieval Christian altarpiece depicting the Mother and Child once had a prime position inside a cathedral. Both images promoted reverence for the divine service of motherhood. Spiritually close but visually far apart, this Iatmul mother provides a study in vast contrast.
Virgin and Child with Donor, late 1340s, Bernardo Daddi, 61.151

Lessons in Green

Marika-Alderton House, Yirrkala Community, Eastern Arnheim Land, Northern Territory, Australia, 1991-1994, Glenn Murcutt
Marika-Alderton House, Yirrkala Community, Eastern Arnheim Land, Northern Territory, Australia, 1991-1994, Glenn Murcutt
Concept drawing, Marika-Alderton House, Glenn Murcutt

Studying Ways of Making Boys Men

Masculinity and motherhood practices among the Iatmul led to two waves of field research in the twentieth century. A famous couple involved in anthropology, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, arrived in the Iatmul area in 1938 and conducted a study of Iatmul character. Their observations were intent on determining how conventions of infancy and childhood affect adult behavior. Together they took an enormous number of photographs, made documentary films and took copious notes. In 1958, Gregory Bateson published a classic study about the naven rite, entitled Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. In the late 1980s and 1990s, anthropologist Erik Kline Silverman returned to the area and looked again at the naven rite and the effectiveness of using mockery to keep lines between mothers and young men clear. During his own naven rites, Silverman says, "mothers enthusiastically insulted me with ribald jests, thrashed me with branches, pelted me with handfuls of mud, and spit red betel-nut juice in my face."  Professor Silverman also reports that the village of Tambunum is rebuilding its large ceremonial house after many years of being without one, thus restoring the place for a face of a mythic mother. (Erik Kline Silverman, "In the Field: The Iatmul. Tourism and Totemism in Tambunum, Sepik River," at
Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson working in the mosquito room, Tambunam, 1938
Photo: Gregory Bateson
Courtesy of The Institute for Intercultural Studies, Inc., New York. Image: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (211b)

Boars and Cassowaries as Adornment

Wild boar


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Untold Story, November 14, 2003 - November 14, 2004

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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