Date: 19th–early 20th century
Geography: Papua New Guinea, Yau village, Upper Sepik River region
Culture: Yessan-Mayo people
Medium: Wood, paint
Dimensions: H. 42 x W. 9 x D. 7 in. (106.7 x 22.9 x 17.8 cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace K. Harrison Gift, 1974
Accession Number: 1978.412.1699
The Kwoma, Nukuma, and Yasyin-Mayo peoples of the Waskuk Hills region north of the Upper Sepik River in New Guinea share a distinctive artistic tradition centered on an annual sequence of ceremonies devoted to the cultivation of yams. A supernaturally powerful food, yams cannot be eaten until the spirits (sikilowas) responsible for their growth and, more generally, for the welfare of the community have been appropriately honored. Following the yam harvest, the spirits are celebrated in a sequence of three ceremonies, yena, mindja, and noukwi. Each ceremony requires the creation of a specific type of figure.
Carved wood heads such as this one are created for yena, the first of these harvest rituals. With bulging eyes and pendulous noses, yena heads represent powerful spirits. During the yena ceremony, a group of yena heads, each portraying an individual, named spirit, is mounted atop the kobo, a large, basketlike structure containing a portion of the yam crop. When is use, the boldly painted heads are further embellished with brightly colored leaves, feathers, and other ornaments. At the conclusion of the yena rites, the display is dismantled, the heads stored away, and preparations for the next ritual in the sequence begin.