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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Yam mask

Photo: Paul Macapia

Yam mask

Tall tuber contests

Yams are not only a staple food among the Abelam of the Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, but are the basis for a unique contest. For men who devote five months of attentive care to cultivation, gigantic yams-which can grow as large as nine feet, even up to fifteen feet long-are considered their reward. The harvest is presented in an ostentatious display, including masks woven out of wicker to which feathers; leaves, shells and large fruits are added. Men sing songs of victory and taunt their rivals by boasting about the impressive proportions of their yams. Arguments may result in yam assaults, when yams are used like battering rams. This yam cult was common throughout most of the twentieth century, but the tradition has been debated in recent years.

Wicker, feathers, wood, hair, fibers, and polychrome
15 x 14 5/8 x 14 3/8 in. (38.1 x 37.15 x 36.51 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Untold Story, November 14, 2003 - November 14, 2004
Published ReferencesSelected Works, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1991, p. 58

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

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