Body mask for 'Yiti' ceremony
The Asmat people of southwest New Guinea honour the dead through the creation and performance of elaborately decorated body masks, during ritual feasts that celebrate the passage of the recently deceased from the world of the living to the ancestral realm.
The Yipae ritual of the coastal Asmat – called Yiti in Pupis village on the Wasar River – involves two types of masks. The first – the 'manimar' – impersonates a mythical orphan boy who was abandoned by his community. With the aid of his old grandfather, the boy collected bark fibres ('fum'), dried them, then wove cords from them and plaited the cords into a cloak and hood. Wearing the body mask, he frightened the women of the village as a mock spirit, or 'yipae', whereby they fled, leaving their bags of sago and tools. The women called upon the men to capture the spirit and, upon uncovering the disguised young boy, pronounced that no orphan would ever again be abandoned.
The second mask, called by various names of spirits, is sacred and represents a specific individual. The masks are constructed from locally sourced materials including mulberry fibre, sago palm leaves, wood, bamboo, feathers and seeds. The 'fum' bark cord is made by the men in seclusion and then woven by specialists over a period of weeks or months. During this period of mask-weaving, food is shared by the families of the deceased for whom the mask is commemorating. Women and children cannot see the mask during this period.
On the first day of the ceremony, the 'manimar' appears late afternoon, chasing the children and a source of mocking fun. The following afternoon, the masked spirits appear from the woods, welcomed into the village with and clouds of 'mbi' (white pigment). The men hang parcels of sago grubs – symbols of fertility and growth – on the masked spirits, and they are led to the 'jeu' and fed sago. The living and the dead dance long into the night and, the next day, the masked spirits are led back to the woods where they depart for the ancestral realm 'safan'. Following the rituals, the masks are secretly stored and hidden for reuse in future ceremonies. Elements considered to be imbued with ancestral powers, such as the leaf skirts and fringes, are burned.
The deceased represented by this mask was Bowei, a male ancestor.
For further reading see 'The art of the Asmat, New Guinea: collected by Michael C Rockefeller', Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962; Michael Clark Rockefeller and Adrianus Alexander Gerbrands (ed), 'The Asmat of New Guinea: the journal of Michael Clark Rockefeller', Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1967; Pauline van der Zee, 'Art as contact with the ancestors. Visual arts of the Kamoro and Asmat of Western Papua', Bulletin 389, KIT Publishers, Amsterdam, 2009; and Jan Pouwer, 'Gender, ritual and social formation in West Papua', Brill, 2010
Place where the work was made
mulberry fibre, sago palm leaves, wood, bamboo, feathers, seeds, earth pigments
165.0 cm height
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Gift of Todd Barlin 2020. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display