Kwoma Ceiling


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

from the informational placard:

The Kwoma are a group of people living in the Washkuk Hills north of the Sepik River in northeastern New Guinea. Most Kwoma villages have, or had, one or two ceremonial houses, consisting of a rook reaching nearly to the ground and supported by posts and beams. These structures have no walls, and the sides are left open except when rituals are taking place inside. A finial (yaba), carved with images of supernatural beings, projects from each gable. The decoration of Kwoma ceremonial houses was formerly less extensive that it is today, but since the 1970s, the amount of ornamentation has increased. The supporting wood architectural elements are now carved and painted, and paintings typically cover about half the roof’s interior.

Kwoma paintings are created on bark-like panels made from sago petioles, the lower portion of the leaves of the sago palm tree. After the petiole is cured and flattened, the artist covers the smooth side with a wash of black clay. The main outlines of the design are laid out in clear water, retraced in paint, and then filled in with color. Although one man lays out the design, an assistant may perform the work of infilling and painting the bordering dots. The semi naturalistic designs represent people, animals, or other natural phenomena associated with the village clans. Each artist primarily creates paintings of designs that are associated with his own clan. These paintings are then installed on the ceiling together with those of other clans. Artists from several different clans were involved in the production of the present ceiling.
The pained panels are installed on the ceiling in no particular order. They are mainly arranged lengthwise along the axis of the house, with a few placed laterally at its midpoint. The midpoint forms the center of the structure, the most ritually important area, and it also roughly demarcates the sectors allotted to each clan.
Most of the paintings for this reconstruction of a Kwoma ceremonial house ceiling were commissioned in 1970 and 1973, from a group of twenty-four artists in Mariwai village.

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