Exploring Sepik art & culture

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From the 27th of october 2015 until the 31rst of January, The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris gathered a suite of 230 sculptures concerning the culture Sepik.

The Sepik is actually the longest river in North Papua New Guinea, of nearly 1,200 kilometers snaking through the swamps and rainforest, before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

As human occupation is attested for several millennia, the river used to be a source of food and a means of transport, but it was also a source of threat, with flooding and crocodiles, and many other animals that populated the Sepik mythologia.

Along its shores, a countless diversity of cultures and languages ​​has developed over millennia. Scientists could count over 90 different languages, the smaller language groups being limited to a few villages of 300-400 inhabitants.


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IMG_4704.jpgVarious linguistic groups in the Sepik area


The abundance of food the Sepik River has induced the development of complex rituals and ceremonies to consume and use them. That gave an opportunity to make many objects.

Sepik Iconography and artfacts

Big and powerful birds, as sculptures on houses, often represented the agressive strength of the whole village, which would spot men in enemy territories, such as fishes to be caught.

The world of women and men were strictly separated. The spaces reserved for women, dwelling houses in particular were accessible to all members of family lines, friends and guests. This is where women prepared food and mesh bags, or richly decorated pottery.

There also were mythical figures like Daria, a very powerful and quite malicious woman, representing the authoritarian mother goddess but also distributing wealth.

The men’s house, inevitably forbidden to women, is symbolically a woman’s body, referring to a glorious feminine ancestor. Several masks and erotic carvings represent this symbol in the men’s house, the center of the male world and ceremonial life. Only adults had the right to enter the imposing building, with high roof and exuberant exterior and interior decoration. In the house of men, were preserved items used in the mysterious male rituals, including the initiation of young boys such as spears and masks.


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In Sepik, ritual passage into adulthood leads to very impressive dances and songs. Boys to be initiated would be secluded in the forest, eating a special kind of food and once they appeared again in the village, they were celebrated as having reborn. Giant drums resonate for days and nights.


Drum from Kairiru island


Being initiated gave men access to knowledge and the privilege of accessing the most powerful objects, such as masks, musical instruments, sculptures, bones, shells….These were directly linked to the ancestors.The Sepik masks have in common to be very frightful. And those who wear the costumes are adorned with leaves and feathers, they look like monsters.

The paddles were often considered as « the first child » by the warriors attacking another village. But the military expedition did not aim at destroying the enemy and every mission was submitted to the ritual and spiritual prescriptions. For the first cut head, a man was considered a real warrior by the village.

A paste made of sap, lime and red ocher was used to mold the cut heads to keep them in the houses of men.

The ancestors played a key role, especially as creators of the world. They were ubiquitous in everyday life and rituals. We perceived the sound of their voice through water drums and bamboo flutes. Terrifying figures of ancestors and masks created with boundless fantasy were used in initiation rituals that can last one year.

Ancestors figures were proeminent in the Sepik culture also because ancestors represented the « Everything ».

Ancestors decided what the law was, and if someone, would act against the law, ancestors would appear in various shapes to punish.

The crocodile often represents the ancestors: In some villages, such as in the tribe Iatmul, during the initiation rites, the bodies of the boys are adorned with spectacular scarifications representing crocodile-ancestors bites. Crocodiles symbolically eat the young non-initiated spirit and spit the new out at the end of initiation.

IMG_4745.jpgScarifications on initiated men

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A boat-shaped crocodile statue in one of the most famous sepik creation. Carefully carved from wood, it length two meters. That gives a hint of the Sepik River dimensions.

These canoes allowed the people to exchange goods and objects, to find partners to marry, but also to make war. They were the most important means of transport in the Sepik Basin.

Zoomorphic trophies as the skull of crocodile where adorned with precious stones to create sparkling blue eye. Numerous musical instruments, which, thanks to their sound, embodied the ancestors: for example, bamboo flutes up to two meters long, that rendered voices, important in initiation rituals.


The Iatmul were a broad ethnic group inhabiting some two-dozen politically autonomous villages along the middle Sepik River. The Iatmul were not a centralized tribe. They never acted politically, socially, economically or as a single unit. Villages were autonomous. Yet, the communities were roughly grouped according their language as well as sociocultural affinities.

In Iatmul legend, the original status of the world was a primal sea.

The waves stirred by the wind made the land surfaced, leaving out the first generation of ancestral spirits and culture-heroes. The ancestors then embarked in a series of mythic-historical migrations. Where they trod, land would appear. The ancestors created the world through naming. Literally, They named all the features of the world into existence-trees, mountains, stars, winds, rains, tributaries, towns, everything in the world. These names are called Expired totemic names. They are patrilineal names claimed by specific clans and lineages. Totemic names are magical, and form the basis for the religious system.

The Iatmul are best known for their art, related to men’s houses, male initiation, elaborate totems, and a famous rituals.

Explorations and heritage

The Sepik River was long neglected by explorers and travelers. But in the sixteenth century, the first Europeans landed on the island of New Guinea, a part of Papua New Guinea. However, the river would only be discovered in 1886 when a German researchers colony settled there. It was not before years that exploration trips were organised, including the Hamburg expedition of 1908-1910 and the Berlin South Seas expedition in 1912-1913.

Quickly, Europe got to know the exceptional aesthetic value of Sepik art. The first masks, drums and sculptures from Papua New Guinea who managed to arrive in Europe, there are over a hundred years, caused a sensation. 20th century artists used the visual language of these carved wood, which was new to them; Expressionist artists such as Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, members of the Brücke group, but also the Surrealists were fascinated by the poetic beauty and the artisanal virtuosity of these objects from Oceania. The European public was intrigued by the unusual materials, such as shells, feathers, but also bone or animal teeth.


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A sepik headrest that belonged to André Breton

To know more about the exhibition:




Is Yaokwa, the ritual of cosmic and social order to be vanished?

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Yaokwa, a ritual practiced by enáuenês-nauês, known also as Salumã, an Indian tribe of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, marks the dry season, during which enáuênes-nauês interact with the creatures of the underworld, called Yakairiti.

Offerings are made for these spirits to calm down their insatiable hunger. In exchange of the relief the food given bring to them, the spirits maintain the social and cosmic order. The preparation of Yaokwa begins in January, cassava harvest time, also the best time to build  fishing traps in rivers Joaquin Rios, Arimena, Black River and Nhambiquara.

The fishermen remove all adornments that can identify them as human, so as to represent the beings of the underworld, the Yakairiti.

The village is divided into nine rituals clans. And after two months of fishing, each clan offers salt to the group of fishermen/ Yakairiti, in exchange for fish. The salt consumption symbolizes the communication between spirits and humans.

On the way back to the village, the fishermen/Yakairiti, again representing the beings of the underworld, encounter the residents of the village. And, after the ritual songs, they again exchange fish for drinks, prepared with cassava and maize.

The ritual lasting months, in the following weeks, the food is to be consumed in night banquets with music, songs and dances to pay tribute and communicate with the world of spirits.

Indeed, constantly maintaining balance and harmony between nature and the spiritual world is essential, as the Enawene Nawe universe has two levels and they are between the two.

The upper level is the living place of Enore Nawe, or celestial spirits, who are the masters of honey and of certain flying insects. They accompany the Enawene Nawein during their fishing parties or their expeditions, and protect them against the dangers of the world surrounding the village. The subterranean level is the realm of yakairiti. The spirits of the world below are of highest importance as the yakairiti are the masters of natural resources, and if you exhaust the earth and the fish, yakairiti will take revenge and kill all the Enawene Nawe…

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UNESCO recognized their importance a few years ago, but are they to be disappear anyway?

In August 2006, has started a process to acknowledge the Yaokwa ritual as a Brazilian intangible UNESCO heritage, after Iphan studies pointed to the risks posed by factors such as the acts of woodcutters and miners in the area, as well as the construction of small hydroelectric dams, changing the natural and social landscape. The request was approved in 2011 with the inscription of Yaokwa in the registry of UNESCO Cultural Heritage, enhancing the urgent need of protecting it. The decision was taken during the meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage in Bali, on the grounds that the Yaokwa « is an extremely delicate and fragile ecosystem whose continuity depends directly on its conservation ».

But today, things are far to be sorted out as the brazilian government announced it would begin the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams upstream of their territory. The Indians oppose the dams which pollute water and will remove the fish that are an essential part of their diet, and by extension that will threaten their forest as well as their rituals and traditions.

Indeed, not polluting their river is all the more of the utmost importance as the Enawene Nawe are one of very few tribes in the world who do not eat red meat. They are expert fishermen catching fish with timbó, a poisonous juice made out of a woody vine. The natural poison is put in the water, so the fishes will rise to the surface, asphyxiated.

Will they have to flee again?

Unfortunately, due to other tribes attacks, they already had to flee, finding no rest in their nomadism and being compelled to abandon their religious centers:

Salumã people had to flee from their primary local source, in the 1940’s, in response to frequent attacks of the Rikbaktsa tribe. They then moved to the inhabited region known as Serra do Norte, where they built villages and dams. In the 1950s, they reached the Iquê margins, which expelled the Nambikwara and from which they were expelled again a few years later. They continued moving up the river Camararé, to settle near a small tributary, the river Spring, inside the Nambikwara territory. There remained until the 1980’s, when they migrated back to the Iquê, where they remain until 2012.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of recognition in their importance by the brasilian governement, will this tribe have to flee again?

Will their beautilful art and tradition is condemned to disappear?

To know more of their art and traditions, find below:

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