A Superb Old New Guinea Water Drum Sawos People Middle Sepik River area East Sepik Papua New Guinea
|Collection No.||Water Drum|
A Superb Old New Guinea Water Drum Sawos People Middle Sepik River area East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea
This rare old Sepik River musical instrument is a Water Drum and is called abuk in the local Sawos & Iatmul languages.
Water Drums are important ceremonial musical instruments that were used in pairs along with pairs of Sacred Flutes that were used in an enclosure where women & the non-initiated can’t see them, a hole was dug in the ground and filled with water, the Drum is handled by two men each holding one side of the handle the drum is pushed into the water and then quickly pulled out creating an eerie whooshing sound caused by suction. This is said to be the voice of powerful ancestral spirits.
The Water Drum is carved from a single piece of heavy hardwood & beautifully carved with two sets of totemic bird’s heads on both handles, the lower part with finely incised clan designs that include stylized faces and traces of ochre painting.
The three ridges at the top of the drum where there are no designs, that is where the Drum that gets submerged in the pool of water & hence the discoloration from the water & mud and it makes sense to leave that undecorated except as those ridges might be necessary to make the unique acoustical sound.
This Drum was one of a pair, they are made and used in pairs along with sacred flutes also used in pairs. This Drum was separated from its pair in Australia long ago, I owned the other one but it was sold to an important Museum Collection, how the Water Drums were separated is unknown but they likely arrived in Australia together in the early 20th Century & were split up because the owner did not know the importance of the fact they were a matched ceremonial pair.
The Sawos people, who live along the middle reaches of the Sepik River, are among the most prolific and accomplished sculptors in New Guinea. Sawos’ religion was complex and included a diversity of rites and ceremonies devoted to ancestors, spirits, and other supernatural beings. Almost every important occasion had ceremonial aspects, and some, such as male initiations, lasted for months. Sawos ceremonies often included both secret rites known only to men and public performances in which women and children participated. In the past, warfare and headhunting were integral elements of religious life.
The Sawos were, and remain, vigorous artists and builders. Their most impressive architectural achievements were their large, splendidly decorated men’s ceremonial houses, which were the center of male religious life. Ceremonial performances entailed the use of masks, sacred images of ancestors and spirits, and a range of sacred musical instruments, including flutes, slit gongs, and Drums. Stools incorporating ancestral figures formed the centerpieces for ceremonial debates.
There seems there were three types of Water Drums: A shallow oval Dish Form with lugs which was the more common, A hourglass-shaped Water Drum with handles only at the top
and this type is the tallest and the rarest & most interesting in my opinion with the handles in the middle of the drum
Of my type of Water Drum, there are only three known examples I could find: the one in the PNG National Museum collected by Dadi Wirtz, the two in a photograph by Laumann which no one knows where or if they still survive.
You can see an example in the publication “ Living Spirits Fixed Abodes: Masterpieces Exhibition from the Papua New Guinea National Museum 2010 by Dr Barry Craig, on page 198 there is a photo & information about the National Museum Sepik Water Drum, the one in this publication only has minimal carving only the handles & single face at the top, there is a tiny band on design at the bottom on the drum, this one was collected by Dadi Wirtz in 1955, he was the son of Swiss anthropologist Paul Wirtz and in 1952, he went with his father to Papua New Guinea to assist him collecting tribal art on the Sepik River, many of the artworks they collected are in European Museums.
Provenance: The Todd Barlin Collection of New Guinea Oceanic Art