Sepik Art at Leeds Museums

Last week I was in Paris for the opening of a stunning exhibition on Sepik art at the Musee de Quai Branly, and a two day workshop on The Materiality of Sepik societies in 2015. The exhibition coincides with the 40th anniversary of Papua New Guinea’s independence.
The Sepik River is an area with a distinctive style of ancestor figure sculpture and portrait heads, some shown in family dwellings, and others in the huge sacred men’s houses or Haus Tambarans. Different musical instruments are linked to men’s initiation into sacred knowledge.
Abelam yam mask photographed by missionaries Barbara
and John Ross in the Wosera area of Papua New Guinea.
Here in Leeds we have a few examples of Sepik art. These include a large chunky figure hook, probably an ancestor figure, which shows the sort of scarification designs that men acquire during initiation, on their shoulders, back, navel and thighs.
Much better documented is a collection of 50 or so items purchased in 1983 from Barbara and John Ross, who lived for a while amongst the Abelam, in the Wosera area of Papua New Guinea, helping with the educational side of missionary work (Their collection is accessioned as LEEDM.F.1983.200 to 251). Their items include several Abelam yam masks (pictured above), a basketry Iatmul pig mask, and some of the huge colourful net bags with their intricate geometric designs.
Mr and Mrs Ross also let Leeds Museums make prints from a selection of their colour slides, including images of yam masks at a Yam distribution at Malba in 1976 and masked dancers at a funeral dance at Magendo in 1977.
Keram River story board from Papua New Guinea
Other key items in the Ross collection are one of the huge sago pots from the village of Aibom, a large Iatmul mask with feather hair, nassa shell inlays, boar’s tusks, and bird shaped nose extension. The largest piece is a Keram River story board (pictured above).
According to John Ross this intricate carving tells a traditional story about a village sorcerer who can change himself into a crocodile. Two flute players are playing traditional songs, whilst a man with a cockatoo’s head represents a cockatoo spirit bird. These storyboards developed after the 1940s, taking inspiration from earlier paintings on sago spathe which hung inside the sacred men’s houses on the underside of the roof.
It was a delight to see so many key pieces of Sepik art at the Paris exhibition and hear talks from a broad range of anthropologists who have made the Sepik their special area of study.
By Antonia Lovelace, World Cultures Curator

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