CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New Guinea

Tribal Masks And Culture In Papua New Guinea

CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, the second largest island on earth, is best described as a world of its own. This remote area to the north of Australia has remained largely isolated from outside influences both ecologically and culturally. On the western half of this landmass is the remote Indonesian province of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya). And the eastern half composes the mainland of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea with cultures and traditions unlike most others around the world.

Geographically Papua New Guinea is a land of contrasts. It lies just south of the equator and is wholly within the tropics. As a result, its coastal regions are steamy mangrove swamps that merge into dense inland jungles. In contrast, the rugged interior rises thousands of meters to snow-capped mountains and insular valleys. An incredible variety of cultures have arisen in these isolated valleys. The diversity of the people of New Guinea is illustrated by the fact that over nine hundred tribal languages are spoken on the island. Along with its own language, each tribe has unique artistic expressions connected with its spiritual beliefs. Wildlife is abundant and diverse on the island and figures prominently in the daily lives of the people. Many types of plants and animals are recognized by the people in their religious beliefs and represented in their art forms. Cassowaries, crocodiles and pigs are the largest animals and are of great importance in the spiritual lives of the indigenous people.CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New GuineaA huge part of cultural expression for the people of Papua New Guinea is in their dance and artist expression. Rituals and ceremonies are of particular significance and usually are performed with elaborate masks. Masks are believed to be the spirits or ancestral deities. When worn, the wearer becomes the spirit or tumbuwan that the mask represents. Only men wear or make masks. In fact, it is taboo for women to see or even touch masks, except during a ceremony. However not all areas of Papua New Guinea make masks. But because of the large number of communities within Papua New Guinea there is a large number, and great variation, of mask types throughout the country.

Masks that people wear are normally referred to as dance masks. Many masks are wooden but there are others made from tree bark over a rattan frame. Each carving has a very specific use and embodies an individual spirit. The forms are stylized and tend towards expressionism because the spirit world is felt or dreamed, not seen.CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New GuineaThere are several different kinds of masks originating from Papua New Guinea.

Ancestral Masks

These represent specific ancestors and bring the spirits of the deceased among the clan. Those spirits then share with the living the positive attributes they possessed during their natural lives.

Mwai Masks

These masks represent mythical siblings of the clan. During initiation ceremonies these are fastened to large, conical dance costumes worn by village elders who perform the rituals that transform boys into men.

Savi Masks

The savi mask is one of the tools used as protection against black magic in the Iatmul world. Easily identified by their protruding tongues and large eyes, these masks represent aggressive spirits that ward off enemies of the clan. Savis are supernatural beings and are some of the most powerful spirits recognized in this culture.

Dance Masks

To evoke the power of certain spirits, ritualistic dances complete with costumes and songs are performed with these masks. Such ceremonies are undertaken to ensure successful hunting and war parties, to bring bountiful harvests and for many other reasons.

Canoe Prow Masks

Shields fashioned from large pieces of bark and tied to cane frames are fixed to the prows of dugout canoes for protection against spears and arrows. As an added measure of protection against supernatural forces sent in advance of enemy war parties these masks are fastened to the shields. The spirits of ancestors who were great warriors are believed to inhabit these masks.

Ceremonial Shields

These are created for similar purposes in the Upper Sepik region. These striking, boldly colored shields are never taken into battle but are displayed prominently inside the dwelling to ward off marauding spirits from enemy villages. While they may incorporate similar themes, no two of these beautiful carvings are alike.

Elaborate Hooks

Described by anthropologists and collectors as cult hooks, food hooks or suspension hooks, these are carved and decorated both to accommodate benevolent spirits and to preserve food. Suspending food from the hook discourages vermin, and the spirit thought to inhabit the hook is believed to retard spoilage.CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New Guinea Of all these masks, hooks and shields, perhaps some of the most fascinating forms of art from around the world, the Asaro Mud Masks from the Asaro Valley is very interesting and intriguing. Known as Holosa (spirit) masks, these are made using white clay, feathers, straw and other elements found in nature. The men also decorate their bodies with the same white clay. Once their bodies are completely white, the heavy clay-masks are carefully placed over each men’s head.

The Asaro community is made up of several tribes and numerous smaller clan groups living at the foot of Mount Daulo and the start of the great Asaro Valley that runs east towards Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province.CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New GuineaAccording to the Komunive, the tradition of holosa mud-masks began in late 1800s in the valley. The Komunive’s warrior ancestors made their mud-masks from stong backs lightly covered with clay. They swathed their bodis with the clay, put on the masks and then ambushed their enemies. The enemies fled at the sight of the ghosts. The Asaro headdress is the white clay mask. The rich gluey clay, dug up from sites located at nearby creeks, is carefully carried to a clearing in the village centre. In the hands of the expert, the clay is shaped and moulded to remove any impurities and then rolled into small round lengths. A flat surface is created, sometimes on a large flat piece of plank. On the flat surface a round length of clay is placed as a ring. Then another round ring is placed atop the other. The layered rings are smoothed with the fingers and thumb on the inside and outside. An oval shaped head emerges. The end that rests on a flat surface is open. The facial features, including eyes, ears and nose are formed and placed on around the oval-shaped head. The faces of the masks are distorted and disfigured. Grotesque eyes sockets and balls are set in and ears and noses protrude from the sides and front of the face. The gaping mouth, sometimes with a protruding grey tongue has a row of pigs’ teeth with large gaps is pressed in on the lips. The forehead and cheeks are occasionally tattooed or patterns are added.

Once complete, the mask is set aside and partially dried in the sun. The mask is quite heavy due to the moisture content of the clay. When the time comes, the dancers swathe their bodies with the same clay. Long, sharp bamboo tubes are prepared and placed over the fingers. Wearing a basic loincloth, an assistant lifts the mask over the dancer’s head.CulturallyOurs Tribal Masks And Culture From Papua New GuineaIn very slow motion the grotesque figure gently and deliberately walks forward. The long elongated fingers cackle and move about the air in front of the dancer. There is no singing. No accompanying instrument. Just quietness. Now and again the elongated fingers come together. The Asaro Mudmen amble, meander and drift their way around the space and are believed to chase away the nasty, malevolent and wicked.

Masks have significance in many cultures, and have a powerful symbolic language to express cultural and spiritual beliefs. All through Papa New Guinea, such masks are used in performances, community events and festivities to celebrate key milestones such as birth, initiation, marriage and death, for fertility and harvest rituals, and for ancestor worship, making it a core part of the culture and traditions of this island nation.

Culture matters for everybody’s development and wellbeing. If you don’t know your history, you don’t know where you’re going – Alex Nicholls, dancer, West Australia.

{Photos from The Australian Museum which has a permanent exhibit on masks and tribal art from Papua New Guinea}

Tribal Masks From Papua New Guinea



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Leave your comments below

  1. Ann says:

    Such beautiful historical objects 🙂

  2. Alison says:

    Great post. So lovely to see these masks on display at the Australian Museum. I haven’t been there for a few years and I think last time the staff were working on this exhibition.

    • Karthika Gupta says:

      Thank you Alison. It was amazing and such a great way to learn about the history and culture of New Guinea.

  3. eric hilmer says:

    I have several papua new guinea masks with boar tusks and shells imbedded in clay. They fell off the wall and some of the clay with shells fell off. I was wondering if you know how to make the clay so I can repair them? Thanks for any help.

    Eric Hilmer

    • Karthika Gupta says:

      Thank you for your question Eric. The best way would be to connect online to some experts or perhaps reach out to your local museum curators. They might have more insight into realizable contacts who can fix them for you. Hope you are able to get them repaired!

  4. Peter Murphy says:

    thanks for your informative article! I photographed the masks at the Australian Museum the other day — with a 3d camera — and have made an interactive “Facebook 3d Photo” , of one of them, so far … as you move your mouse over the picture you can see it from different angles
    ..on a Facebook group here it is …

  5. Carlo F Fiorentini says:

    I still have a Papua/New Guinean mask acquired in Hawaii in 1988 ; It is made of rattan. Since the time I owned the mask I have made a few minor researches, I believe I once found out these kind of masks were used in ceremonies to improve crops and hunting, anyways, it’s well preserved and it occupies a conspicuous spot at home.
    I very much liked your article.