Head for Yam ceremony (Yena), Wood, paint, Yessan-Mayo people

Head for Yam ceremony (Yena)

19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Yau village, Upper Sepik River region
Yessan-Mayo people
Wood, paint
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:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
The Kwoma, Nukuma, and Yessan-Mayo are closely related peoples living in the hills north of the middle Sepik River in northern New Guinea. These groups share a unique art tradition associated with a religious cult centered on the cultivation of yams. A sequence of three rituals, called "yena," "minja," and "nokwi," each involving a different type of figure, is performed in honor of the yam harvest.
Carved wooden heads such as this one are created for yena, the first of these harvest rituals. With bulging eyes and pendulous noses, yena heads represent ancient and powerful spirits. During the ritual, village men assemble a pile of yams within the ceremonial house. The sticklike bases of the yena are inserted into the yam pile and the heads are decorated with brightly colored leaves, feathers, and other ornaments. The men then dance and sing to honor the yena spirits. At the conclusion of the ritual, the display is dismantled, the heads stored away, and preparations for the next ritual begun.
[Wayne Heathcote, Australia, until 1974]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1974–1978

Newton, Douglas. Crocodile and Cassowary; Religious Art of the Upper Sepik River, New Guinea. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1971, p. 82-87.

The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 138.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 79.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, no. 31, pp. 68–69.