By Barry Craig, South Australian Museum
I have prepared a paper from a dataset of a large number of slit gongs of the Sepik and lower Ramu region, documented during field surveys in 1981, 1982 and 1983, to demonstrate slit gong variations and their repertoire of sculptural form.
That paper has too many images to be suitable for publication in a journal. It is therefore available for download using the link below:
In this post, I provide a much-abbreviated version.
The slit gongs (slit drums, garamuts) of the Torricelli Mountains (Fig. 1) are symmetrically canoe-shaped, carved so that prow and stern look alike, and the slit is in the form of a double keyhole.
The slit gongs of the upper Sepik region (upstream from Ambunti) have a truncated stern and a long tapering prow carved with an animal, human or sometimes non-figural finial. ‘Wobnerluk’ from the Wogamusin village of Washkuk is an example (Fig. 2). It was purchased by a Mission priest in 1972, gazetted National Cultural Property 30th March 1976 and has been kept at the Catholic Mission in Wewak. It has good provenance documented by that priest and ought to be in the PNG National Museum.
There is a marked change in the form of slit gongs at the villages of the Manambu on the Sepik River in the immediate vicinity of Ambunti. Historical photographs show prows carved as crocodile heads and truncated sterns (D. Newton Crocodile and Cassowary, 1971, Figs 123, 124). These are closely related to Western Iatmul slit gongs (Fig. 3). Prows are carved as animals, birds and in human form.
The Sawos, located inland north of the Sepik River Iatmul, carve slit gongs with a pug-nosed prow featuring large nostrils and prominent disc eyes (Fig. 4). Many have a human head at the stern, usually representing a male ancestor. The prow is called kami (catfish) or kaula (carp or gudgeon) – ‘bikmaus’ in Tok Pisin.
Slit gong prows of Chambri Lakes, central and eastern Iatmul, and the Karawari and Yuat rivers, are carved as monster-like combinations of the attributes of dangerous animals, such as crocodile or snake heads with rows of multiple boars’ tusks, and doubled faces; the stern carvings may be of ancestors or totem animals (Fig. 5). Keram River prows and finials are usually in human form as figures or faces.
At Bien, downstream from Angoram, the slit gongs radically change in form. They are characterised by bilateral symmetry: the finials at each end of the gong are carved the same, either as faces resembling brag masks or as kandimboang figures (often male at one end and female at the other), usually supported by an animal such as a lizard, which is the ‘vehicle’ of the spirit represented as the finial (Fig. 6). The lavishly carved sides of the gong are also of bilateral symmetrical design, depicting several motifs that refer to spirits, or to features or creatures of the natural world. This kind of gong is carved in the lower Sepik-lower Ramu region.
Slit gongs of the north coast near Aitape are similar to those of the Lower Sepik-Ramu but with angular forms and linear, rather than curvilinear, designs on the sides. (S. Chauvet Les Arts indigenes en Nouvelle-Guinee 1930:79, 80).