Wasau (head for yam ceremony)
Papua New Guinea
Inland from the village of Ambunti on the Sepik River, in the foothills of the Ambunti Mountains, there are three pottery producing cultural groups: the Nukuma, the Mayo and the Kwoma. This modelled pottery head - known as a 'wasau' - is most likely from one of the Kwoma pottery villages of Tongwinjamb, Washkuk, Melawei, Bangwis, Meno, Baglam or Urambanj.
Kwoma believe in a complex pantheon of spirits, which fall into two categories: 'bush' or 'water' spirits occupying streams, boulders, or other natural features, collectively termed (in pidgin) masalai; and clan spirits depicted by ceremonial carvings.
Margaret Tuckson and Patricia May visited these villages in the 1970s and 80s and described these objects:
'Wasau are cult objects shaped like pots, with pointed closed bases and open orifices. They are distinguished by modelled faces or heads. These faces consist of an applied ridge which forms a jutting angle in the shape of the outline of a head, a projecting long or beaked nose, cutaway round eyes and a cutaway bow-shaped mouth ... the remaining surface can be covered with scratched, incised or chip-carved patterns'.
Anthropologist Christian Kaufmann also described these ceremonial heads:
'In general with the clay heads one is dealing with the representation of the sacred spirit beings, 'sikilawas', who are closely related to yams and happenings in the primeval age (thus pot = head = yam = the spirits of ages past)'.
During yam ceremonies - such as the 'Yinamu' feast held during the dry season, where the head is placed on a platform together with many yams piled around it - the heads are supported on sticks and decorated with leaves and human hair.
For further information see: Christian Kaufmann, 'Das Töpferhandwerk der Kwoma in Nord-Neuguinea', Pharos-Verlag Hans-rudolf Schwabe AG, Basel, 1972; and Margaret Tuckson and Patricia May, 'The traditional pottery of Papua New Guinea', Bay Books, Sydney, 1982.
Place where the work was made
earthenware, natural earth pigments
28.0 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