As part of an epic trip up Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River in October, 2019 – a long time bucket list event with the specific intention of visiting the Aibom pottery village in the Chambri Lakes – Brunyfire saw a number of clay related activities, some unique to PNG, in addition to the sourcing and acquisition of clay cooking pots.
For example, during our stay at Kanganaman on the Sepik River, we were visited by a young man who had been initiated into the crocodile cult. This cult employs body scarification as a rite of passage from boy to manhood for young male members of the Chambri tribe who believe they descend from crocodiles, who are sacred to them. The previous evening, Brunyfire, Mr TN and our group embarked on a crocodile hunt……….
……….that resulted in a couple of baby crocs, one of which we were able to keep before releasing the following morning. But even in such a tiny fellow……..
………the distinctive markings of his skin replicated those of young Shaun who had undergone the excruciating cutting process only 6 months prior.
Scarification takes place in spirit houses all along the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea and can take up to two hours. In the past sharpened bamboo was used but today tribal leaders use razor blades. They make deep, 2cm-long incisions on the backs, shoulders, and upper torsos of young males, whose ages can range from 11 to 30.
However, the boys are not allowed to show pain as the process is intended to demonstrate discipline, focus and dedication. After their flesh is cut, the youths lie near a fire so smoke can be blown into the wounds. Clay and tree oil are then rubbed into the cuts to prevent infection and to ensure the wounds remain raised even after they’ve healed.
Clay as body adornment was also much in evidence at the 63rd Goroka Festival. Grabbing a plane from Wewak to Goroka in PNG’s Highlands, the Intrepid Pair (Brunyfire and Mr TN) spent a couple of days immersed in an incredible display of tribal ‘sing-sings’. Dance groups came from all over the country to compete and whilst the proliferation of sound, movement, colour and texture was at times overwhelming, the clay elements of the performers was intriguing to Brunyfire.
The Asaro Mud Men. The fabled Asaro Mudmen, are recognised throughout the world as a primary cultural symbol of the New Guinea highlands and Papua New Guinea.
The story of the Mud Men that we were told involves the Komunive villagers who, on being banished from their homes after an attack, escaped into the river to hide. When they emerged from the water, their bodies were coated in white clay and their enemies, mistaking them for the avenging ghosts of slain villagers, fled in fear. However, there is some speculation as to the origins behind the Mud Men story with anthropologists questioning the authenticity of the masked figures, deriding them as manifestations of colonial administration and the tourist dollar.
Imure Burning Heads. The Imure Burning Heads sing sing group from Madang also showed an ingenious use of clay in the form if an insulating lining inside their carved timber headdresses.The Huli people are renowned for their aggressive warring nature. Both face and body makeup play an integral role within the Huli culture and their choice of paint colours reflects the culture’s warring nature. A bold and energising yellow usually made from clay called ambua contrasts against a fiercely bright red, while touches of white clay known as momo and black charcoal are used to add decorative features to the overall design. These specifically selected colours are intended to instil a sense of fear in the Huli’s opponents as well as assisting the Huli in transcending their own state of consciousness, helping the warriors to overcome fear and prepare for battle.
In general, clay seemed to be a pretty predominant ingredient as a decorative festival feature.