Potters of the Sepik River, New Guinea

June-November, 2011

The Sepik River descends from New Guinea’s high interior mountains to meander through dense, low-lying swamps before reaching the sea. Along the river’s margins people harvest fish from the waters and pound flour from the pulpy core of cultivated sago palms. They trade these staple foods for meat and objects, such as pottery, made by people living in communities on higher ground away from the rivers, where clay and other essential resources are found.

In Aibom, one of these villages, women craft large pots for storing smoked and dried sago flour, cooking vessels, and bowl-shaped ceramic hearths for cooking, heating, and lighting. They collect clay from the hills around their community, mix it, and build the vessels by hand. When the basic form is complete, men decorate and paint the vessels with faces and embellishments that link these vessels to the ancestors and to myths of creation. Women fire their pots in open air pyres built of dry palm fronds, then exchange the pots for sago, fish, and other products—today including cash and imported goods—that cannot be obtained locally.

Twenty-five miles away, across the Sepik, women in the villages of Koiwat and Kamanggaui shape bowls used for eating and serving sago that are elaborately carved and colorfully painted by men. These, too, are traded widely, so that most groups along the middle reaches of the Sepik have Koiwat bowls for eating and jars and hearths from Aibom for storing and cooking sago.

Koiwat eating bowls (kamana) and Aibom cooking vessel (sero)
Koiwat and Aibom villages, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Late 20th century
Gifts of David C. and Karina Rilling

The sero is a cooking vessel used by women, daily, for cooking stews, fish and sago porridge. The serving bowls, kamana, are stored upside down to reveal their elaborate carved and painted decorations.

Sago storage jars (damarau) and hearth (gugumbe)
Aibom village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Late 20th century
Gifts of David C. and Karina Rilling

The faces modeled and painted on Aibom’s large storage jars represent spiritual beings associated with a male and a female deity, Meintumbangge and Kolimangge. Although these vessels are not made for use in ritual or ceremonies, Kolimangge is said to have created pottery, taught women to make pots, and is now the earth and its clay. Faces representing pigs, eagles and bush spirits on these pots may represent Meintumbangge, while those representing ducks and masks reference Kolimangge or related female spirits.

The ceramic hearths made at Aibom are signature pieces of the community. They are traded widely and used both inside houses and in canoes to cook meals, smoke meat and fish, provide heat and light, and chase away mosquitoes.

Janus faced storage jar (damarau) and lids
Aibom village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Late 20th century
Gifts of David C. and Karina Rilling

One myth told in Aibom, recorded by anthropologists Patricia May and Margaret Tuckson, describes a female spirit, Ntshambeyaintshe, who was associated with Kolimangge. She had two faces—one a human’s and the other a duck’s. Ntshambeyaintshe was eaten by two pigs and from her body and blood grew the first palm trees, from which sago and building materials are obtained. This pot’s two faces may reflect this myth.