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Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik Region, Tambanum Village
Iatmul people
20th c.
Wood and pigment
Gift of Mr. Morton D. May

This mask was carved by an artist from Tambanum Village, known for its wood carving industry. Masks were carved from soft wood and were decorated with paint made from natural pigments and charcoal. A major theme in Iatmul art is sculpture of the human form, especially men. Masks such as this one frequently feature exaggerated noses, which signify masculinity (women have short noses), and often can refer to a clan’s totems (entities that watch over or assist a group of people).

Ancestor worship was fundamental to the Iatmul people, and they believed that ancestral spirits have power over those still living. In addition to ancestral spirits, the Iatmul believed in marsalai, or spirits (usually evil ones), that were never human and also affected the realm of the living. This mask represents a male bush marsalai called a winjumbu, which has the ability to transform into a bird. Birds played a major role in the mythologies of peoples along the Sepik River, and they were frequently featured in Iatmul art. A man would have worn this mask along with an elaborate costume, and he would have imitated a winjumbu’s actions and character at ceremonies honoring rites-of–passage and special events.

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