Ludovic Coupaye

Art, Technology and "Agency": the great yams of the Nyamikum Abelam, Papua New-Guinea


This project will culminate in a work, written in English, on this thesis which describes the cultivation of yams of over 3 metres long, harvested and exhibited in special conditions by the Abelam of Papua New Guinea. These yams are decorated and put on public display for annual ceremonies before being circulated during competitive exchanges between ritual partners. To an outsider, their phallic aspect has often overshadowed the multiple dimensions that such an “artefact” represents. Obtaining the great yams requires technical, botanical and horticultural expertise; as well as secret relations between the various actors – parents, allies, spirits and ancestors – and cosmology.

Equally, these are the elements that make them aesthetically effective and give them their value in exchanges. Because they represent relations, the great yams can generate others and create a social link.


Ludovic Coupaye studied the Oceanic and African arts at the Ecole du Louvre before training in archaeology at Paris-I. He then chose to study in England at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (SRU) at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where he wrote a thesis, for which he spent eighteen months in an Abelam village in Papua New-Guinea (East Sepik Province), and passed his viva examination in 2004. He was the scientific organizer of an exhibition for the Oceanic collections of the musée des Beaux-Arts de Périgueux in 1998. He taught Oceanic Arts with Philippe Peltier at the Ecole du Louvre as well as The Anthropology of Art and Material Culture at the University of East Anglia, where he is Honorary Research Associate. He also collaborated on the ‘Pacific Encounters’ exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich (2006). He splits his time between his project at the musée de quai Branly and teaching students specialising in Oceanic Arts at the Ecole du Louvre.

Drawing on archaeology, museology, history of art and anthropology, his scientific interests are centred on object-related issues such as operations and technical skills as well as the materialisation of social and cultural relationships. He is currently attempting to establish a parallel between the specificity of the French anthropology of techniques (from André Leroi-Gourhan to Pierre Lemonnier), with the Anglo-Saxon vein of ‘Material Culture Studies’ based on the notion of consumption. Art is never absent in his analysis because he, like many others, considers that aesthetic phenomena are a part of the “technologies of enchantment”: a vehicle of socializing intention coinciding with the messages they deliver. In relation to this interest for technical systems, he is equally curious about the history of the anthropology of art, the notion of a material metaphor, fractals and non-linear systems, ritual phenomena and the relationship to the environment.


1998 – “Oceanie” in Terre d’Echanges Aquitaine-Océanie, directed by Véronique Merlin-Anglade. Bordeaux: ACMA, p. 53-137.
2007 – “Des Portraits Abelam”, in Arts & Cultures 2007, p. 258-275. 
coming soon– "Beyond Mediation: Long Yams cultivation and display in the Maprik Area of Papua New Guinea”, in Art Histories: Global and Local Mediations, directed by Celina Jeffrey & Gregory Minissale. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholar Press.