Yadmai’s mystical Mai mask

The National,Monday July 4th, 2016

THERE are mask-making villages along the Sepik River, including the tribe of Yadmai at Tambunum village of East Sepik, with their famous Mai mask.
A chief’s son who prefers to be identified only as Andi says the Mai mask in his society is very much respected.
His people value it as a sacred icon that represents the spirit world. They keep it in a sacred place and no woman or girl is allowed to see or touch it because it is revered used only on special occasions.
He said the mask has been passed down through generations and the tradition continues today.
The passing of the mask through the generations down his forefather’s era to his, where it is kept and how it is being made.
Andi explains that in order for the masks to be passed on, a ceremony has to be held. The villagers or the tribesmen will have to kill pigs and hold a very big feast before the mask can be passed on from the current keeper to the next one.
The mask will only be passed on to the smaller brother born right after the person who is currently keeping the mask. If he had died, then the brother after him.
If all the brothers have died, than the mask will be passed on to the eldest son of the elder brother and so on.
Andi says the mask is kept in the famous haus tambaran (traditional sacred house for men and boys only) of the Sepik people.
He says the masks are only worn by people who are being initiated and who have received blessings from the elders.
“Each mask is made of canes which are woven together into the shape of the face of a human person,” he said.
“After it is being woven, it is wrapped by a laplap-like part of the coconut palm which is brown in colour when dried.
“It is then painted with red, white and black coloured clay which are collected along the banks of the mighty Sepik River.”
He says the mask comes with a special traditional song and dance that is famous in the Tambunum village to Sapandai in the Wosera-Gawi district of East Sepik.
He says in the past, there used to be tribal fights or wars between them and neighbouring tribes. After the fights or wars, when their fighters returned in victory, bringing with them the head of their tribal enemies the chief calls for a celebration.
He will put on the Mai mask and heads the performance. The chief will lead the dance that will be performed with the Tambi-Bangu song (war victory song) to welcome fellow warriors of the tribe.
The dance and song performance is done to restore custom and peace back in the tribe, according to Andi.
But today Andi says the dance is only performed during special events, such as the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture in 2014.
When it’s time for performance, women and children also take part in the dancing and the singing.
“When it is time for decorating the masks for a performance, women and children are not allowed to see or touch or even enter the shelter where the mask is kept.
“If they do so, it is believed that something bad will happen to them or it will bring bad weather and bad luck to the people of the tribe.”
He recalls that during the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture in 2014, he brought the Mai mask with some of his tribesmen and did a performance during the occasion.
Jacinta, a female dancer in the group, said: “It is our pride to display our traditions through our singing, dancing and most of all displaying our famous Mai mask to the people of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia along with our arts and crafts.” She says they are proud of their tradition and culture and will preserve it at all costs in the face of changes taking place in the country today.
Apart from the famous mask, his people also specialize in arts and crafts.
The women specialise in weaving baskets and mats from weeds collected along the banks of the Sepik River.
They also specialise in body ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets from sea shells exchanged with sago and fresh water fish with the people along the coast.
One of the craftswoman Evelyn says she weaves baskets with a special type of weed that grows along the banks of the Sepik River.
She not only weaves baskets but also make head dresses, necklaces and decorative ornament worn by ladies today like beads bracelet. Today she uses manufactured strings and wool to string together beads for necklaces and head dresses.