The agenda to seek out PNG’s clay cooking pots that are still in use is, as always, driven by Brunyfire’s passion for collecting traditional clay cooking pots of the world whilst they are still being made and before the traditions of their production and use dies out.
Papua New Guinea is a nation in transition – from its isolation in the 19th century, through colonialism, to it’s independence in 1975, and this is reflected in its cooking pots. For example, in some of the remote villages along the Sepik that we visited, traditional clay cooking pots are still in use, whereas in towns and the nearby villages they are being displaced by more convenient aluminium vessels. Those clay cooking pots that are still being made however, still abide by the age old techniques of production as we were to discover in the village of Aibom.
So from the pre-dinner drinks comfort of our hotel in Port Morseby back in September 2019, overlooking the airport on our first balmy evening in PNG…..……..to the moment Brunyfire and Mr TN get their first glimpse of the Sepik River flying into Wewak the following day……..
……..the realisation that we are finally on our way hit home! Wewak is the capital of the East Sepik province of PNG, located on the northern coast of the island and is the largest town between Madang and Jayapura. It’s grimy and run down…….
………it’s betal nut juice decorated pavements are suggestive of blood stains – an ever present possibility, particularly with the build up of tensions between groups of machete carrying locals on a Friday night. However, Wewak is a necessary pit stop to those wanting to stock up before heading up the Sepik.
The following day, we board our clapped out mini bus for the gruelling four hour bone shaker of a ride from Wewak to Pagwi (our entry point into the river) with a couple of cops riding shot gun up front.
Brunyfire, Mr TN and the group finally find themselves heading out from Pagwi in the traditional dug outs……………..powered by an oversized mix master, on the Sepik River heading to our first destination at Kanganaman where our traditional guesthouse awaits us.Built from local materials, very often with a chainsaw and machetes, our accommodation is basic and despite the rather disconcerting nature of the springy bamboo flooring, is very comfortable. With mattresses on the floor, mosquito nets and clean bedding – an exterior drop loo and a bush shower (or a dip in the river) our party settles in.And just around the corner from the dining area is the kitchen with a traditional, wood fueled cooking fire hearth, or gugumbe.
These clay hearths were to be found in many of the homes we visited, and propped up with three upturned clay bowls as pot stands, or tshisiran, serve as the main heat source for cooking indoors. (Above: The house kitten enjoying the residual warmth of the cooling ashes).
On the third day of our Sepik sojourn, we head off to the Chambri Lakes, a series of swamps and shallow water canals in the East Sepik Province that are seasonally filled by the flooding of the Sepik and Ramu rivers…….
…..for an overnight stay, firstly at Chambri village…….
…….and then onto the pottery village of Aibom the following day.
‘The best known and most universally recognisable pottery from Papua New Guinea is made at Aibom village, on the edge of the Chambers Lakes’. * Aibom has become reknown for its distinctive sago storage jars, cooking pots, gable ridge ornaments, fire hearths, sago frying dishes and serving bowls. The ware is usually fairly heavy in its construction (compared to some of the rarer Motu wares of the southern coastal region for example) with zoomorphic decorations on the sago jars in coloured slips. Aibom wares carry a kind of robust crudity!
On the day of our visit, we get drenched by a sudden downpour whilst on the river but it didn’t dampen the delight Brunyfire had of meeting with Alexessia, one of the better known women potters of the village.
Alexessia and her sister Martha make a range of traditional pots from the large sago pots……….……to small sago fry pans or yaintshe (note: the smaller scale, more portable wood fueled gugumbe with a stand – seen left under sago fry pan – these would often be used for cooking in the canoes) and smaller scale vase versions of the sago storage pots (by Alexessia’s sister Martha)…….
…..to the glorious large gugumbe fire hearths and a range of smaller braziers.Brunyfire’s purchase had to be limited to a cooking pot, similar to a lidless Aibom feast pot (Tuckson and May p. 232 The Traditional pottery of PNG)…………..this one with the addition of a lid, which Brunyfire assumes is a later addition as cooking pots usually had either upturned pots or coconut shells as covers (Kaikai Aniani: A Guide to Bushfoods, Markets and Culinary Arts of PNG by R.J.May, p.32*).
The remoteness and inaccessibility of Aibom account for the lateness of European contact, and so the production processes and designs of the Aibom pots, comprising of sago storage jars (called au have two variations – the damarau and the noranggau), cooking pots, gable ridge ornaments, gugumbe firehearths, sago frying dishes, serving and eating bowls, remains much the same.
Aibom is the only Iatmul, (a large ethnic group of about 10,000 people inhabiting some two-dozen politically autonomous villages along the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea) village with a suitable clay source for producing ceramics. This they source from the slopes behind the village and combine two types – a whitish clay, relatively clear of grit, and a more gritty, yellowish brown clay.
Alexessia mixes and kneads the two types of clay together before punching out a couple of balls of clay into rough bowls and proceeds to punch them together to form one.
Next, she works the inside walls with her knuckles, thinning and pulling up the walls of the pot.She then makes thick coils with more clay, adding these to the base…….………before thinning and smoothing the inside and setting aside till the body stiffens enough to add further coils to.She already has several sago fry pans at leatherhard stage, the final process of which is to burnish with a smooth baby coconut demonstrated here by Brunyfire to much hilarity!After firing, the fire hearths and cooking vessels are treated with a sealing solution of starchy sago water………
……..which is splattered onto the still hot pot that has been pulled from the firing.
This was such a tantalisingly short visit – and whilst the shortness of time and the weather didn’t dampen Brunyfire’s enthusiasm it did leave a lingering desire to return some day and continue to enjoy the generosity of its villagers.
* Kaikai Aniani: A guide to Bushfoods, Markets and Culinary Arts of PNG by R.J.May, first published in 1984 (reprinted 1988) by Robert Browne & Associates (Aust) Pty Ltd.
**From Patricia May and Margaret Tuckson’s The Traditional Pottery of Papua New Guinea, University of Hawa’i Press, first published in 1982 – revised edition 2000.