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
Provenance: Collection of Dr. George Kennedy (1919-1980), Los Angeles, California; sold to Katherine White (1929-1980), Seattle, Washington, 1965; bequeathed to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Untold Story, Nov. 14, 2003 - Nov. 14, 2004.
Published ReferencesKahn, Miriam. "Art of Oceania, Mesoamerica, and the Andes." In Selected Works, pp. 55-58. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 58, reproduced.

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