“Revering our Elders” in the Pacific Islands

Pacific Island ObjectsIn addition to Chinese and Japanese objects, The Art of Continuity: Revering our Elders also contains traditional objects from the Pacific Islands. While the cultures differ in many ways, there are commonalities in the important role ancestors and spirits play in ritual settings.

Yam MasksThe objects featured from the Pacific Islands are closely linked to the religious ideas and social customs of the region.  These utilitarian and ritual objects reveal much about the belief systems to which they are related, and are deeply rooted in a reverence for ancestors. The souls of the deceased family members or important figures in tribes have been understood to have a great influence on the living. In addition, certain archetypal ancestor figures such as Father Sky and Mother Earth are also revered broadly. Therefore, various objects such as sculptures, dress, structures and weapons have been embellished with depictions of ancestral figures, either family members or respected members of their villages, to ensure their continuing guidance and protection. When such objects were activated through proper rituals and ceremonies, they could double as vessels which embodied deceased ancestors and forebears.

Yam MasksIn the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, yam masks are used in ceremonial contexts and during the annual yam festival. As a main staple in the regional diet, the yam has been venerated to invite abundant harvests and fertility in villages as well as for political and social order. During annual yam festivals, the largest yam would be decorated with a mask such as these, and this yam became the temporary abode of the ancestor spirit. The spirit would be invoked with songs, chants, dances and offerings. The male who grew the biggest yam of the harvest and dancers at male initiation ceremonies would also wear these masks to personify the spirit. This performance strengthened the connection between men, clan ancestors and yams, reaching back through the generations.

Ancestor statueMany sculptures and masks in human forms from Papua New Guinea portray deceased members of family or village elders. By revering communal ancestor spirits, people connect themselves with their larger community and establish shared identities, which have been considered equally, if not more, important than individual familial ties. Life-size ancestor figures such as this were prepared to accompany various ceremonies and rituals like male initiations and yam festivals. This figure embodies a male ancestral spirit, and was embellished with vibrant colors which are still visible in some areas of the sculpture. During ceremonies, such statues were further decorated with flowers and feathers, and after the ceremonies, were housed in the communal spirit house.

These objects are certainly worth a closer look in our exhibition. To learn more, see the exhibition page on our website. ~CM

Yam Mask, Papua New Guinea; Sepik River, 20th century, Vegetable fiber, pigment, Gift of Dr. Seymour Ulansey, 1982.148.11
Yam Mask, Papua New Guinea; Sepik River; Maprik Area, mid-20th century, Vegetable fiber, pigment, Gift of Harlan Givelber, 2002.6.1
Yam Mask, Papua New Guinea; Sepik River, early to mid-20th century, Vegetable fiber, pigment, Gift of Harlan Givelber, 2002.6.2
Yam Mask, Papua New Guinea; Sepik River, 20th century, Wood, pigment, Gift of Dr. John B. Ross, 2003.48.15
Yam Mask, Papua New Guinea; Sepik River, early 20th century, Wood, pigment, Gift of Harlan Givelber, 2000.40.6
Ancestor Figure, Papua New Guinea, early 20th century, Wood, pigment, Gift of Richard M. Cohen, 1984.87.13


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