A remote tropical jungle, populated by "primitive" peoples, New Guinea is the largest island of Oceania and a place of extremes. Geographically hostile terrain, vast rivers, and scattered islands, this is home to over 800 ethnic-language groups. The country of Papua New Guinea is situated on the eastern portion of New Guinea, while on the other side, West Papua is a province of the Republic of Indonesia.
The hypnotic sounds of the New Britain Baining fire dancers were still playing in my mind as the dance troupe huddled around me, eager for me to purchase one of the elaborate tapa-cloth-bound vungvung masks, depicting the face of a rain forest spirit. I was a little skeptical about the design of the mask, as it seemed to resemble Daffy Duck! The other thought passing through my mind was not only how I would get this gigantic mask home intact, but the response from my husband as I lugged home yet another mask I "just had to have." This time I would also have to explain how I came into possession of a very well worn ceremonial penis covering, a bonus with the mask. These masks make a one-off appearance, created for a single ceremony, after which they are normally discarded, destroyed, or in this case, sold to a willing buyer like me.
The mystery of New Guinean masks is intriguing--what do they mean, how are they made, and why do different tribes that are geographically separated have similar art forms?
Research has shown that due to the fact that these communities live in isolation, developing their own distinct cultural identity, each depict specific elements that render their art recognizable and identifiable both to its own people and to neighboring groups. Masks are treated with respect; owners talk to them as if they were alive and sometimes refuse to part with them. They are an emotional link to spirits, deities, and ancestral beings.
In parts of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, and even to some extent New Caledonia, the Melanesian people still live in the age-old fashion of their forefathers. However, an increase in efficiency, quantity, and elaborateness of design within their art has been brought about with the advent of Western iron tools.
Designs of masks, figures, shields, and spears within the Sepik basin have become more "polished" and refined, some using lacquer to finish off the art. Asmat artists create taller mbis oples (mortuary poles) with more complex openwork, and the Massim region (Milne Bay, the D'Entrecasteaux islands, Trobriands, Marshall Bennett Islands, and the Louisiade Archipelago) uses fine crafting tools to skillfully complete elaborate ebony walking sticks and inlaid pearl bowls.
The diverse and exotic plant and wildlife forms are an inspiration for the art of these different cultures in New Guinea. Material used for adornment include wood from various trees central to their life, leaves, beaten bark, seeds, fruit, shells, birds-of-paradise and other plumage (mostly cassowary or chicken), mammal pelts, insects, human hair, and colored earth and clays. Traditional colors are black, produced from charcoal, sump oil, soot, and certain vegetable saps; red, signifying blood and the creation of life, made from human blood, iron-rich soils, and certain plant juices. Lastly white, the color of death, sperm, sago, and a fresh skull, is obtained by mixing lime (oxidized limestone), water, and certain vegetable-binding agents. Other distinguishing colors are gray mud, yellow from earth and clay, and blues and greens from plant saps. Innovative artists now prefer to use modern oil colors available from some of the trade stores. Acting as a sealant to the wood, the oils help inhibit woodborers, although the finish is not as appealing as the "ancient" appearance.
While the Asmat, Sepik, and the Massim are prolific woodcarvers, there is a distinct difference with the interior art form. The New Guinea Highlands tribes focus extraordinary care and attention on stunning body decorations and dazzling wig plumage.
Masks are worn in funerary ceremonies, or function as part of a secret society celebration like the iniet and dukduk society of New Britain, hung from the facade of a Haus Tambarum (spirit house or men's society house) as a gable mask to protect the entry from demons, carried in bilum bags for prosperity or fertility, and, in some instances, unceremoniously burned following the ritual for which they were a centerpiece, as is the practice with the malangan figures of New Ireland. Wearers of the ior skull masks within the Tolai, New Britain, become the ancestor. The Baining people of New Britain dance to honor the spirits and celebrate a birth or marriage, to ensure the strength of their young men, or to secure the fertility of their crops.