Sago Spathe Paintings

Sago spathe paintings are made by the Sawiyano people of East Sepik Province in Papua New Guinea. The Sago palm is the primary food source of the Sawiyano and Youna peoples; the sago spathe is an outer covering of the sago palm. Easily ripped from the live palm, the sago spathe is cut to the shape of a painting. Paintings are created with mineral pigments.

Sago spathe paintings are used in ritual houses for both the nunu (young boy's initiation) and the yafi-nu (men's ritual). These ritual houses are not permanent structures but are constructed anew when it is felt that another set of initiations is needed.

The paintings are part of the Sawiyano creation myth. According to their creation myth, the creator Awoufaise first brought paintings into being, then created the Sawiyano (male) ancestors from the paintings. This knowledge is imparted to men at the yafi-nu ritual house, prior to the first initiation connected with that ritual house.

The yafi-nu (men's ritual) house is the most-sacred of the three types of Sawiyano ritual houses. Most of the paintings in the Museums collection come from a ritual house built in the early 1980s. The initiation cycle was not completed due to dissension among the senior men who were responsible for keeping the initiation going. The paintings were recovered from the ruins of the structure in 1987 by Phillip Guddemi, a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. Some paintings which would normally be present were not found. Examples of these were commissioned from local artists.

The round nunu (boys' initiation) house is said to have been common to several of the groups in the Left May language group area. This type of house was to have been a collaboration between the Sawiyano (or Ama) people and the Youna (Iteli or Rocky Peak) people, and specifically between subgroups of these who had been traditional enemies. The paintings were hung from the ceiling of the conical ritual house, and small holes in them indicate where they were attached to this ceiling by hooks made from the mandibles of small marsupials. A small room was built between the ceiling of the nunu and the apex of its cone; in this room senior men came and shook the ceiling and the attached paintings, in order to frighten the women and small uninltlated boys who were below.


89-17-1
Length: 131 cm; Max. Width: 39 cm

  This painting is of water flowing around stones, the native term being topai iwo. At the base and at the top there are two shorter ripples which are white and outlined in black with white dot trim. The ripples at the top are more curved than those at the base. In the center there is a large elongated ripple in the shape of a handlebar moustache. There is a smaller ripple to the right of it (looking from the base) which is curved in the same direction. To the left of the large ripple is an elliptical shape with a red dot within it. All are white and outlined in the black with white dot trim except at the top of the large ripple. There are no white dots, just a darker black one. Also, about a third of the way up, there is a small white dot outlined in the same trim.
  The painting is in good condition. There are some holes: one towards the center, two (small) on the ellipse, and one towards the bottom of the large ripple. It is warped due to reduced humidity. The paint is wearing off on the edges.
  The hole in the center may have been there prior to painting. The two small holes on the ellipse may have been punched in the painting for the purpose of hanging it.


89-17-2
Length: 106 cm; Max. Width: 35 cm

  This painting is of poso which represents a limbum palm bark water container. Limbum is a generic Neo-Melanesian term for hardwood palms. The design resembles the letter E in all sorts of positions. They are white and are outlined in black with white dots and they are on a red background.
  The condition of the painting is poor. It is warped due to reduced humidity and it is cracked at the top and at the edges. There are two holes, one at the center and one towards the bottom, both of which appear to have been used.


89-17-3
Length: 113 cm; Max. Width: 37 cm

  This painting is of iwounu which represents a meander in a river or stream. The abstract design is a smooth flow of curves, curlicues and lines. It is white outlined in solid black within a red space. The black lines form an X in the bottom half of the painting.
  The condition of the painting is good. It is warped due to reduced humidity. It is sturdy. There is one hole at the bottom right and one just left of the center. It looks like they have been used for hanging the painting.


89-17-4
Length: 125 cm; Max. Width: 37 cm

  This painting is fu alumo sowo which is a floating plant that has anchored on floating trees or at the water's edge It is found on stagnant lakes and has an edible fruit. The design has two white arrows pointing towards each other. They are outlined in black with white dots. The red background makes a large X at the center.
  The painting is in good condition. There are two holes about a third of the way up from the base. It is split at the top. Sturdy. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-5
Length: 117.5 cm; Max. Width: 38 cm

  This painting is of ulawi powiyoi which represents the female ulawi sacred design. The ulawi is feminine in gender, and is one of the two most sacred designs along with aiyasimoki. It is an abstract design with the center looking like two arrows joined and pointing away from each other. The design is white outlined in a black border on a red background.
  The condition of the painting is fair. It is cracked and frayed at the lower left edge. There are several holes at the lower right corner, some of which look as if they've been used to hang the painting. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-6
Length: 116 cm; Max. Width: 39 cm

  This painting is of yapu yapuwoi which represents the Sepik River. It is an abstract painting of a meandering red flowing in between shapes of white outlined in a black with white dot border.
  The condition of the painting is fair. It is sturdy and it is warped due to reduced humidity. There is evidence of fire damage in the discoloration of the painting. There are four distinct holes: one at the bottom left, one at the lower right edge, one on the right edge near the center and one on the left edge near the center, all of which appear to have been used to hang the painting.


89-17-7
Length: 135 cm; Max. Width: 40 cm

  This design is mianminani fakomo which is found on shields of the Mianmin people. The red background forms three Xs lengthwise along the middle. The rest of the design is white with black and white dot trim. They look like palm leaves. Along either side of the center of each X, there are red circles outlined in black with white dots.
  The painting is in fair condition. There are two holes: one in the center and one towards the top. They appear to have been used for hanging purposes. There are some cracks at the tip and the edges are fraying. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-8
Length: 146 cm; Max. Width: 41 cm

  This painting is tomoki or a large boulder. It is an abstract design with a dark center which is black with white dots. The rest is white outlined in black with white dots and red beyond the trim.
  The condition of the painting is poor. There is a corner missing off the base. It has many cracks and the colors are worn. There are six holes, some of which may have been used to hang the painting. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-9
Length: 110 cm; Max. Width: 31 cm

  This painting is mianminani fakomo which represents the design found on the shields of Miamin people. The design is abstract using a white backbone design at the base leading to more angular forms at the top. It is white outlined in black with white dots and is on a red background.
  The condition of the painting is poor. There is a large piece missing from the bottom. It is warped due to reduced humidity. There are three holes: one in the middle about a third of the way from the top and two about a third of the way from the bottom.


89-17-10
Length: 114 cm; Max. Width: 44 cm

  This painting is of wiyo sosolima which represents the imperial pigeon. The abstract design is white outlined by a black with white dot border and is on a reddish-brown background. The center design runs the length of the painting. It narrows a great deal at the center where there are five oval shapes outside the design. They are white with a black and white dot border.
  The condition of the painting is fair. It is warped due to reduced humidity. There is a large hole just below the center. It may have been used to hang the painting. There is a smaller hole at the base and two small holes towards the top, all of which appear to have been used to hang the painting. The colors have faded. The edges are cracked. There is a large crack on the left edge. It is weak.


89-17-11
Length: 148 cm; Max. Width: 43 cm

  This painting is of the leaf of a limbum palm which is used to make bows. The Sawiyano term is toni sowo. Its abstract design has four large swirls along the center and several smaller ones along the edges. Two of the largest ones on the top half are G-shaped. They are base to base so that one is upside-down. The colors are bright. The shapes are white with black and white dot trim and the area outside the trim is deep red.
  The condition of the painting is poor. The structure is weak; there are cracks throughout the painting. There is a section off the corner of the tip as well as a long split along the other corner. There are two holes at the edges about a third of the way up from the base. They appear to have been placed there for hanging the painting. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-12
Length: 91 cm; Max. Width: 34.5 cm

  This painting was commissioned of a local artist, Lapuwo of Ama and Kavia villages, to complete the range of paintings within this collection.
  This painting is of a mountain pine. The native term is monia. The design is a random abstract white design outlined in black with white dots and is on a red background.
  The condition is good. There is a distinctive hole in the center which is a natural hole in the sago spathe. There are three holes along the base, one with a vine in it, and two at the top which appear to have been placed for the purpose of hanging the painting. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-13
Length: 94.5 cm; Max. Width: 43.5 cm

  This painting is of popuwanoni namoli ku which represents the back markings of the spirit woman. The design on this painting is abstract in that it has no particular shape to it. The central part of the white design runs lengthwise down the painting. Towards the top and the bottom the design begins to have curlicues.
  The condition of the painting is fair. It is sturdy and there are three holes: two manmade for hanging the painting and one which looks like natural wear of the spathe. The natural hole is on the left, close to the bottom. The other holes are along the left close to the center and on the right closer to the top. It is warped due to reduced humidity. There is a large crack at the center.


89-17-14
Length: 91 cm; Max. Width: 35 cm

  Painting of Yu molo fiyouhe l, the leaf of the wild limbum palm. Abstract meandering pattern of white with black sedging and white dots on a red ground.


89-17-15
Length: 114 cm; Max. Width: 38 cm

  This painting is of mulono which means leech. This design is of leeches sitting on a leaf. The paint on this painting is lighter in color. The white design is most likely the leaf. It is outlined in black with white dots. The pale red of the design wanders in and out of the white and most likely represents the leeches. One shape in particular at the top center looks like a leech.
  The condition of this painting is poor. It is warped due to reduced humidity. There is a large hole at the center which was probably used for hanging the painting. The paint is worn off on some of the painting. It is weak and cracked.


89-17-16
Length: 120 cm; Max. Width: 32 cm

  This painting is of a large lizard, sosu. The lizard is black with white dots and has four legs. It is laying on a white surface which is outlined in black with white dots. The background is red.
  The condition of the painting is poor. There is severe cracking across the middle. There are some holes, one at the head of the lizard and one at the center, as well as several small holes along the tail of the lizard. Some of the painting has been broken off at the tip. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-17
Length: 88 cm; Max. Width: 37.5 cm

  This painting is of apu which represents a crab. The peripheral designs resemble the creeper vine. They are white and are outlined in black with white dot trim. The crab is black with white dots and has lots of black legs. It is on a red background.
  It is in poor condition. There are many fractures. There is a large hole worn through the middle. There are four holes which have been made for hanging the painting: two at the center and two at the bottom left. It is warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-18
Length: 124 cm; Max. Width: 32 cm

  This painting represents the sago leafstalk. Its native term is tokwano. The white design is abstract and is on a red background. The white is outlined in black with white dots. The attention is focused to the white circle about a third of the way up the painting. On both sides of the circle, there is a white leaf-like shape.
  The condition of the painting is poor. The base is chipped and there are two holes near the center. It is cracked and warped due to reduced humidity.


89-17-19
Length: 131 cm; Max. Width: 39 cm

  This painting is yapu yapuwoi, which is the Sepik river, with waves. The design is as abstract as a meandering river. The white shapes are outlined in black with white dot trim. The red surface meanders throughout these white shapes.
  The condition of this painting is fair. There are two holes about 5 cm apart along the edge. There is a large piece broken off the edge of the tip. It is warped due to reduced humidity. There is some severe cracking across the middle.


See more Sago spathe paintings
Return to UMMA homepage