- Papua New Guinea
About the Artist
This object was made by a member of the Iatmul [YAHT-mool] cultural group from the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (part of Melanesia). The religious life of the Sepik River was dominated by men’s societies, and wood carving of this kind was done exclusively by men. The artist who created this Orator’s Stool began by cutting the shape out of a large piece of wood. He then used sharp objects like obsidian knives or rodents’ teeth to further shape the figure and to carve details. To decorate the figure, he attached raffia around its waist, wrists, and ankles. He used feathers and shells to ornament the head. It’s possible that the artist painted the figure with charcoal, lime, or ochre.
This sculpture would have been kept inside a special house called a Men’s House, where Iatmul ceremonial activities often take place. Typically, each Iatmul community or town contains a few of these buildings, which serve as the center of community and celebration. The buildings are both visually imposing, as well as socially and spiritually influential. Women and uninitiated men are not able to enter the house.
What Inspired It
Every Iatmul community has its own ceremonial chair, similar to this one. This Orator’s Stool (also called a “speaking chair”) is not meant to be sat upon, but is used during village meetings, debates, and tribal ceremonies. During a discussion, the speaker stands next to the orator’s stool and hits the top of the stool with a cluster of leaves, sticks, and grass to validate important points in his argument. He also places leaves on the chair to confirm his statements. When the first speaker is finished and all the leaves lay on the chair, the next speaker can begin his address. After all of the speakers have stated their arguments, the village chief hits the chair a few more times and states a decision for all to follow. Orators also use these chairs to tell the community about the clan’s history and mythology while hitting the chair with a bundle of leaves to emphasize points.
The human figure is a common form in Sepik River art. As seen in this sculpture, figures were often given an elongated head and torso and short limbs. Special emphasis was placed on the head to show that it is the most important part of the body, where the spirit resides. The artist carved an elongated nose, possibly in imitation of a bird’s beak, and the nose is pierced with ornaments made of bone or boar’s tusk, just as the Iatmul people wear. The incised patterns on the chest and arms represent scarification patterns that would be seen on many Iatmul men. Scarification is part of a young man’s initiation into the men’s secret society and the scars are considered marks of beauty and status.
The Iatmul people believe that everything in the world is inhabited by a spirit. The figure represented here is the spirit Wagen [WAH-gen], a mythological giant in the form of a crocodile. Iatmul people believe that they were born from Wagen and that the world rests upon his back. The figure attached to the stool serves as a temporary dwelling for the spirit who presides over meetings and ensures that each speaker is truthful.
Young Iatmul men go through a series of rites, scarification, and seclusion as part of their initiation into the men’s secret society. Their bodies are incised with sharp blades, leaving scars that look like the teeth marks of a crocodile.
The large head emphasizes that it is the most important part of the body. The artist used most of the decorative materials—including shells, feathers, and bone—on the head.
Many Iatmul people wear nose ornaments similar to those on this sculpture.
Figures like this one often have curved eyebrows that create a heart-shaped face.
Cowry shells outline the figure’s face and decorate the nose. The artist also used shells to create large circular eyes.
The artist may have used charcoal to draw the dark lines around the face, nose, and mouth. He also created designs on the figure’s forehead and drew circles around the eyes and tusks.
The figure’s legs are quite short when compared to the large head. Its knees are bent and mirror the angle of the stool’s legs.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- To decorate this figure, the artist attached raffia around its waist, wrists, and ankles. He used feathers and shells to ornament the head. It’s possible that the artist painted the figure with charcoal, lime, or ochre. Let the students experiment with decorative materials such as raffia, feathers, and charcoal on scraps of wood.
- The religious life of the Sepik River, where this figure was made, was dominated by men’s societies, and wood carving of this kind was done exclusively by men. Discuss this practice with your students: How does this practice differ from what they’re familiar with? What are the roles of men and women in art in their communities?
- The incised patterns on the chest and arms of this figure represent scarification patterns that would be seen on many Iatmul men. Scarification is part of a young man’s initiation into the men’s secret society and the scars are considered marks of beauty and status. Discuss initiation ceremonies and traditions with your students. How do initiation traditions differ across cultures?
- Cowry shells outline the figure’s face and decorate the nose. The artist also used shells to create large circular eyes. Bring in a container of cowry shells and let the students have fun shaking the container and moving their bodies to the rattling sounds.
- Set up a debate over an issue that relates to whatever you’re studying in class. Conduct the debate the Iatmul way by having students use clusters of leaves to hit the top of a special object, emphasizing their main argument points.