by Jim Elmslie
Caption: The Awan with Sophie Parker, of ArtLab, Adelaide, South Australia. Image credit: Alice Beale.
This large body-mask, called a tumbuan in tok-pisin, comes from the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik River, PNG, and played an important role in traditional ritual life. Initially it was thought to pertain to the naven ceremony of the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik region, when pairs of mwai masks were attached to the backs of the tumbuans and groups of dancers performed each afternoon in front of the men’s house for several months. Secret ritual names for a multitude of objects, plants and animals were passed down to the young men and a recitation of all the previous Iatmul generations was incantated to the audience. This ceremony has not taken place in Tambanum Village, where the awan pictured was made, since 1988.
Thanks to Dr. Barry Craig, former curator at the South Australian Museum, this tumbuan was correctly identified as an awan (in Iatmul language) which was used during the initiation of young men. According to Gregory Bateson in his seminal book on the Iatmul, Naven, ‘For about a week after his back has been cut, the novice is subjected every morning to a series of bullying ceremonials. He is made to squat like a woman while masked initiators maltreat him in various ways’ (1958, caption to Plate XII). The awan is worn by the initiates laua, or classificatory nephew, a key relationship in Iatmul culture.
These spectacular masks cover the whole body and feature a large face at the top. They are called awan by the Iatmul and avan by their Sawos neighbours to the north. There are arm holes on either side, usually covered with a flap, and holes in the body of the mask, often coinciding with eye holes in the lower mask, for the wearer to see through. A thick fibre skirt, usually dyed red, is attached at the bottom of the body of the mask to cover the wearer’s legs. As the wearer’s head is usually lower than the neck of the mask, the masquerade appears much larger than life.
This awan was purchased in about 1975 from Village Arts at 6 Mile in Port Moresby. Village Arts was a Government run artefact warehouse, managed by Morrie Young, a colourful identity in PNG during the late colonial and early independence era. The purchase price was several hundred Kina. The only provenance recorded by the purchaser was Sepik. It was exported to Australia in 1982 with a permit, and was hung in a winery for a time. It was then stored in an open shed in Adelaide for 15 years, until the local cats and rats took a liking to it. At that time the owner offered it to the South Australian Museum, which was interested in acquiring it. It was subsequently formally gifted to the Museum under the Cultural Gifts program. The donor is an OAS member.
Early this year the donor and I inspected the artefact with SA Museum staff at the Museum’s storage facility in Netley, Adelaide, and the lack of provenance for the awan was discussed. As I was travelling to the Sepik River with a feature film crew on a location survey in March and April we decided that I should visit Tambanum and see if I could find out any additional information. Armed with images of the awan I asked my old friend, Henry Gawi, if he could help. Henry talked with other Tambanum elders and was able to confirm that the awan was from Tambanum, that it was genuine and had been used in ceremonies in the 1960’s. It had been made by Tipma Guai, a man from the Suwi Aimasa (pig) clan and had been used in the Mepbrapan ceremony, which was part of the mwai group of ceremonies.
The donor also showed an image of the work to Barry Craig, who commented that the museum, “doesn’t have any of those body-masks (awan) apart from the one you donated. The awan were often wholly woven rattan but sometimes they used pieces from the old mosquito bags, which are made from a softer, more flexible fibre, to cover the frame. Figs 3.81, 3.84 and 3.85 in War trophies or Curios? (Museum Victoria Publishing, 2016) are examples of three different methods of construction.”
This interesting exercise showed that the provenance and function of artefacts in collections far removed from source communities can (sometimes) be enhanced by reference back to those communities and to the artists who still retain deep knowledge of their traditional cultures. This, in turn, adds much to our understanding and appreciation of particular objects of material culture and enriches collections, in this case that of the South Australian Museum, with