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Tami Feast Bowls and Yam-ey Thanksgivings

Feast Bowl, 20th Century
Cape Gloucester, West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood and pigment; 9 × 44 1/2 × 25 1/4 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Danny and Anne Shih
Bird is the Word
Thanksgiving is now upon us. Even in its earliest rendition, it was a celebration of thanks through the sharing of food with friends, family, and neighbors. In the almost 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has fortuitously not much changed and still centers around food. Like how every family celebrates with a slightly different spread, cultures around the world celebrate feasts in a variety of different ways, and with a variety of different objects used for the festivities. This post examines two Tami-style feasting bowls from Papua New Guinea and looks at their production and—most importantly—their usage for feasting.
Feast Bowl, early 20th Century
Huon Gulf, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood; 8 × 17 × 37 in.
Bowers Museum Purchase
Tami-style Bowls
Traditionally, the small island of Tami off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea was known for its incredibly prolific creation of bowls. As the island was too small to entirely support itself, it became the crux of a regional trading network, supplying bowls and other carved objects in exchange for necessary goods or the similarly specialized production of a neighboring locale. Especially after the turn of the 20th Century, the number of Western explorers to New Guinea increased, and this system was thrown out of balance. Sailors paid well for wayfarers capable of navigating the region. Considering their incredible ability to navigate their trading network the Tami were perfect for the task. Vast numbers left the islands over the years. By the 1920s woodcarving on Tami had almost entirely disappeared, and with it the old taboos which prevented others from copying Tami designs. The people of the nearby Siassi Island were now free to begin carving bowls. They quickly adopted almost exactly the same style and designs as the Tami before them. Rather than creating bowls to be used and passed down, though, these were made as export wares.
A detail of the crocodile motif on the Tami-style bowl collected in New Britain (2014.15.14).
The collection site indicates just how large Tami Island's trade network was. 
Tami bowls were carved from a type of hardwood known as kwila. The process of hand-hollowing was a long and tedious process considering that nearby islands had mastered the much-expedited process of hollowing with fire. The incredibly hard wood used for Tami-style bowls also made working with traditional Papua New Guinean tools like stone or shell adzes and animal teeth all the more difficult. After carving the designs, the bowls were stained with volcanic mud to give them their deep patina. The entire bowl was then covered with lime juice everything but the incised carvings were then wiped clean, leaving the white pigmentation, traces of which still highlight the grooves of both bowls’ designs.
A different angle illustrates the balum and
crocodile motif of 2014.6.1.
Designs were chosen with great care. Especially before production moved from Tami to Siassi, each bowl was marked by a design serving as kinship group’s trademark. To copy the design of another carver was enough to start a feud, and it was often avoided. This is one of the reasons why the region’s bowl production was localized on Tami Island for as long as it was. The designs on both of the bowls we see here are characteristic of manufacture on Tami Island. The anthropomorphic figure seen wearing a three-peaked headdress at opposite ends of the bowl pictured upside-down is a benevolent spirit called a balum and may come from the mainland New Guinea folk adjacent to Tami Island. Crocodiles which for the Tami were also representative of powerful spirts feature heavily. Generally, designs without anthropomorphic faces have pairs of either stylized crocodiles or lizards somewhere along their sides. The wear of the crocodile running along the base of the here-inverted bowl indicate that it was at some point used for feasting.
Fit for a Feast
The bowls had a number of purposes such as a form of bride price, but their most important one was always feasting. Though Papuan festivals like the Sing-Sing vary from American traditions like Thanksgiving in a number of ways, ultimately sharing food with friends and family is a practically universal custom. These grand bowls—the larger of which measures almost four feet across—were used to prepare and serve porong, which is made from tapioca and coconut fat, along with other dishes. Yams are also a staple dish to much of New Guinea, food for thought when enjoying a Thanksgiving meal!
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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