Papua New Guinea Masks
Masks represent the spirit world and are to be
distinguished from the painted face, which represents
aspects of humanity and attests to the triumphs of the
individual and the clan. Highland masks are relatively
simple in form and are generally worn on the face.
In Papua New Guinea six metre-high totem masks are
placed to protect the living from spirits; whereas the duk-
duk and tubuan masks of New Guinea are used to enforce
social codes by intimidation. They are conical masks, made
from cane and leaves.
The Chambri Lake masks feature-elongated designs
with incised brown and white patterns finished in
At Koroga the masks are made from wood and clay
decorated with shells, hair and pig’s teeth. Murik Lake
masks are almost Mrican in appearance, and in
Maprik they are woven from cane or rattan
Mai (or mwai) masks
Mai (or mwai) masks, represented as pairs of mythical
brothers and sisters, are the teachers in the young
men's initiation ceremonies. Mai masks represent the
spirits of totemic names.
Names are very sacred in PNG, no one actually says
anyone's real name, including their own, for fear of
drawing the attention of bad spirits or sorcerers.
During initiations, the elder who wears the mai mask
becomes a spirit teacher who may say the important
totemic names without evoking personal risk.
Tumbuna mask with savi eyes, (center) a sevi
mask with crocodile tongue and (right) a composite
mask in Wombom style painted by a Tambanum.
A tumbuna mask represents an actual, often
recent, ancestor. This Mindinbit tumbuna has savi
style eyes, so the ancestor must have been considered a
If a village or clan has a lot of bad luck, such as many
deaths, the whole group may change their names and
buy the rights to use masks from another clan in
different village in an attempt to fool the bad spirits or
Hunting charm mask
Turtle masks represents hunting spirits. A
man wants a lot of them around before he
goes hunting. The hunter spits red betel nut
(buai) juice on them to increase his luck. He
keeps them in the men's Haus Boi or at his
home depending on the village.
This is a contemporary "dream" mask from
Tambanum's saun clan. The story is that a man
recently dreamed this mask and until he carved it, its
spirit constantly pursued him and made him do "all
kinds of bad things" like sleep with his neighbor's
wife, kick another man in an argument and so on. All
of which were conveniently blamed on the pursuing
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.
Masks, as well as wood snakes used in sorcery and
other such objects, often bristled with spike
forms, which are a common motif
To evoke the power of certain spirits, ritualistic dances
complete with costumes and songs are performed with
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.
These striking, boldly colored shields are never taken
into battle but are displayed prominently inside the
dwelling to ward off marauding spirits from enemy
While they may incorporate similar themes, no two of
these beautiful carvings are alike.
In the past a freshly procured human head was buried
under each post when a Haus Tambaran was erected.
These structures have to be replaced frequently after
destruction by fire and termites and they often contain
a great number of posts, so many heads were required.
Nowadays headhunting raids are frowned upon by
government authorities and missionaries alike so
substitute heads are carved of wood.
Developed among artists in the Lower Sepik village of
These intricate carvings combine the traditional art
form of the beautiful but ephemeral bark paintings
with the much more durable medium of wood. They
depict scenes from village life, often humorous.
Unlike the older forms of carving they are only
decorative and appear to have no special religious