House of Power. House of Pain. Secrets of the Haus Tambaran of Bongiora

Book Review: ”The Haus Tambaran of Bongiora” by G.J.M. (Fred) Gerrits, 485 pages, soft cover, with 365 colour and black and white field photographs. Edited by Elizabeth Ruscone and Chrstian Kaufmann. *

The Putilago tableau is the final secret revealed to initiates and is dominated by two ngwallndu figures wearing very large waken headdresses. These powerful spirits are carved as boards with three dimensional faces and arms and legs of vegetable fibre. Photo F. Gerrits.

Abelam art has always been one of the most popular and collectable art styles of Melanesia. The larger sculptures, mainly depicting the all-powerful ngwallndu spirits, have strong, simple forms painted in bright and intricate colours and patterns that echo the body paint and ornaments worn for ceremonies by the Abelam themselves, while the tightly woven basketry masks, both the baba or helmet dance masks and the small yam face masks used to elevate choice yams to human status, are also eagerly collected.

Not surprisingly, Abelam spirit houses are as distinctive as their art. From the air, they are said to represent a bird resting on the ground because the Abelam believe their founding ancestor was a bird. They are tall A-frame buildings (up to 80 feet /24 metres high)  with sweeping wings and a sharp drop from the front to the back, or from the head to the tail of the bird.

The Lungwallndu precinct is the resting place of the ngwallndu spirits, and is only entered at the second last stage of initiation.  Two large panels carved from buttress roots stand behind the pair of ngwallndu figures on the floor, a painted ceiling rises above them and many more carvings and paintings line the walls. Photo F. Gerrits

The author of this book, Dr Fred Gerrits, is a medico by training and a tribal art enthusiast. He was stationed at Maprik Hospital in the heart of Abelam territory between 1972 – 1977 and he and his wife became friendly with the residents of the surrounding villages, attending public ceremonies, responsibly purchasing artworks and taking meticulous notes and many photographs, This book came about because Fred was approached by a local who offered to sell him anything he wanted out of the Bangiora village spirit house.

He went to have a look, found it seemingly derelict and, concerned for the survival of the art, stated that he would either buy everything or nothing. He then worked closely with two native informants and, in accordance with their wishes, he made as complete a record as possible so that their knowledge would not die with them but could be accessed by their descendents. Gerrits then had the artworks restored and persuaded the Basel and Stuttgart museums to buy the two most important ritual displays so they would be preserved.

Among the Abelam, the  yam cult is a unique  cultural institution and the focus of male existence. It  involves men striving to produce long tubers (up to a length of 6 feet /180 cm or more),  in intense competition with a long term partner in a neighbouring village. There are two major ritual cycles in Abelam life, both centred on this cult -initiation ceremonies which instruct young men in the magic and skills required to grow the prized long yams, and yam growing ceremonies and rituals designed to ensure the success of the current crop.

Long yams decorated for a yam lining with masks, headdresses and feathers were suspended from poles to be exhibited to exchange partners from the next village. Photo F. Gerrits

Gerrits found some very surprising facts about the Abelam spirit houses at Bongiora and the neighbouring villages of Kuminibus and Chiginambu where he also witnessed initiation ceremonies and took notes.

The first is that unlike other PNG men’s houses, which often function as meeting places for initiated men as well as a restricted area for initiations and ceremonies, the Abelam spirit houses were just empty shells until a specific stage of an initiation ceremony took place. When this happened, temporary tableaus would be set up for the instruction of initiates using three dimensional figures, carved buttress root panels, woven backdrops, feathers, leaves, brightly coloured fruits and many shell money rings, but as soon as the ceremony was completed, the tableau was broken up and the feathers and money rings returned to their owners.

Outside of these specific initiation stages, the spirit house was used solely as a protected location for a communal village yam growing shrine which would enhance the output of the yam fields.

Young Abelam men and boys traditionally underwent a series of initiation ceremonies in six stages which could take six year or longer to complete and each was literally staged in a different part of the spirit house and its surrounds. For the first two years, all the instruction took place outside the spirit house, for the next two years, only in the anterooms and side corridors, and only in the last two years, in the heart of the spirit house itself.At every stage more secret yam growing knowledge was revealed to them but they had to suffer first by being beaten with sticks, whipped with nettles and undergoing other ordeals.The book begins with a tour of the spirit house and its different areas where discreet stages of the initiation ceremonies would take place.

Each level of the initiation cycle is then examined, with detailed descriptions of the carvings, wall and floor decorations and body adornments which are specified for it, and the book has almost 400 field photographs that illustrate these. Fred then turns his attention to the yam growing cult itself, with chapters on yam growing, yam magic, yam shrines and the yam lining ceremony when the choicest yams, decorated with masks and headdresses, are triumphantly presented to partners from other villages. I urge anyone with an interest in collecting Abelam art or an interest in tribal rituals to buy this book, but you should be aware that it is dense with detailed information and peppered with Abelam vocabulary. It is a book that has to be studied, not skimmed. Also, the hundreds of photographs are field records, not art studies. On the other hand, anyone who does take the trouble to read it with care will be rewarded with a new understanding of what Abelam art is all about.

Please note: There are currently 16 Abelam artworks offered for sale on  my website, To view them,  follow this link:

 * Published by Antropunti Documents, Museo delle Culture, Lugano, 2012. RRP E50. Stockists: Bookshop of the Museo della Cultura Lugano (Switzerland), Hoepli Bookstore (Italy), Maremagnum Books (Italy), and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde bookstore, (Netherlands). 

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