Lot 19
  • 19

Iatmul Slit Gong, Middle Sepik River Region, Papua New Guinea

25,000 - 35,000 USD
25,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood
carved with stone tools.


Collected in situ by George Kennedy in the 1960s
Ruth and George Kennedy, Los Angeles
Christie's Los Angeles, February 14, 1981, lot 114
Maureen Zarember, New York, acquired at the above auction
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above on July 15, 1981

Catalogue Note

This monumental slit gong, its surface worn from many years of ritual use in situ, was carved by a Iatmul sculptor with stone implements prior to the arrival of metal tools in Papua New Guinea.  The wood displays a rich, aged patina showing its great antiquity.  Both ends are adorned with imaginative anthropozoomorphic forms which are the sacred clan emblems that identified its original owners.  Still today this gong produces a beautiful, sonorous tone when struck.

Kjellgren (2007: 83) notes: "In many parts of New Guinea the sounds produced by certain types of musical instruments played during ceremonies are said to be the voices of supernatural beings.  Among the Iatmul and other Sepik peoples, the most important musical instruments are sacred flutes and slit gongs--percussion instruments carved from massive logs, hollowed out to create a resonating chamber with a narrow slitlike aperture, whose edges are struck with wood beaters to produce a deep, sonorous tone.  The ends of Iatmul slit gongs are typically embellished [as in the present gong ...] with ornate finials depicting totemic animals or other clan emblems.  Large slit gongs are a prominent feature of Iatmul men's ceremonial houses, whre they are sometimes arranged in pairs running longitudinally down the length of the earthen floor of the open understory of the structure.  Played to accompany a variety of ritual performances and other events, such gongs, though used exclusively by men, are readily visible and relatively public objects."

"Men's ceremonial houses, however, often house, or housed, groups of sacred slit drums reserved for secret ceremonies.  Believed to be a manifestation of waken, the most powerful of all supernatural beings, such sacred slit gongs, also called waken, were kept, together with other sacred objects and musical instruments, in the enclosed upper story of the ceremonial house, concealed from the view of women and children.

"[... An] extensive secret ritual, also known as waken, [was] performed only by senior male elders.  During the rites the sacred slit gong ensemble was played continuously day and night for periods as long as several months by relays of percussionists, each performer taking the moving drum beater from the hand of his predecessor so that the rhythm remained uninterrupted.  When the slit gongs were being sounded, the community had to remain silent and people were forbidden to argue, shout, or even break firewood.  At the conclusion of the rites the old men, impersonating the waken, emerged from the ceremonial house and danced before the village women."