This important powerful triple portrait mask is a particularly fine dramatic example of old malangan tatanua.
Uniquely this superb mask displays three portrait faces with elaborate decoration. The main broad mask bearded face with jutting clenched teeth, broad nose and eyes inserted with snail opercula (turbo petholatus) is surmounted by a beautifully carved ritual bird figure with shell eyes. The face & bird are carved from the one piece of wood. This is indicative of the significance of this mask as the bird plays a particularly important role in malangan tatanua ceremony & ritual. The main mask face is framed by highly decorated dance wings, each with a face surmounted with elaborate head dress decoration. Each wing face contains opercula eyes. Both dance wings have large hand holds. The flat fibre coiffure is supported by a rattan frame.
Curiously the bearded face may indicate a European portrait, a missionary, official or perhaps the infamous German Colonial Administrator of New Ireland Franz Boluminski 1863-1913. Boluminski was deeply involved in local exchange ceremony and after his death his grave became a shrine & source of magic powers and was incorporated into malangan ceremony. Both bald head faces in the dance wings also appear European. If so this is a rare mask indeed.
Includes custom museum display stand.
Height: 59 cm (23 inches)
Width: 60 cm (24 inches)
Depth: 36 cm (14 inches)
The upper part consisted of a cane framework held together with string and covered with barkcloth, or in later examples, European textiles. It is decorated to represent the hairstyle worn by young men as a mark of bereavement, in which the hair was partially shaved and coated with lime. Tatanua masks are decorated differently on each side of the crest, using feathers, wool, shells, short wooden sticks or seeds. One side is often coated with lime. The crest is of yellow or reddish brown fibre. The face, normally carved from lime wood (Alstonia), is decorated with black, white and reddish brown pigment in an asymmetric design. Sometimes blue pigment is included - a European product (Reckitt's Blue - used to enhance the whiteness of washing). The eyes are set with painted snail shell (Turbo petholatus) opercula, the ear lobes are elongated and pierced, and the straight mouth is usually open, showing teeth.
The malangan tatanua masks are danced in ceremonies to honor the dead. Accompanied by the tempo of drums, boards and bamboo sticks, the male dancers either paired off or lined up to dance the masks in public. An homage to male beauty, the masks depict elaborate coiffures, wide, prominent noses, pierced earlobes and a broad mouth with healthy teeth. See Gunn (1997: 146) for a more detailed description of the ceremony as transcribed from the German anthropologist Robert Parkinson.
In 1907 Richard Parkinson published a description of a ceremony that he witnessed on a visit to New Ireland. The masked dancers performed, accompanied by drumming, wearing garlands of leaves and a leaf garment covering the lower body. Men prepared the masks and the performance away from women. The masks are preserved between performances, to be rented out by one of the few remaining skilled carvers. This type of mask was made in north and central New Ireland. It is known as tatanua, after the dance to honour the dead in which it is used. Though the masks are superficially similar in appearance, there are many variations reflecting the wide range of associations and meanings.
There are several categories of masks used in the malagan. The tatanua mask represents the spirits of the dead who are believed to attend the ceremonies and participate in the dances. Villagers clearly associated the different tatanua masks with specific deceased relatives and believed the mask wearers to be the reappearance of the spirit of that individual. In the past the tatanua ceremony was an exclusive male ritual complex and took place in the men's enclosure.
Some of the tatanuas are displays of the “ideal male”, that is, male power and capabilities; others are “portraits” of specific deceased. The placement of the shell opercula eyes is an occasion for ceremony and it is at this moment that the spirit is believed to enter the mask. Tatanua dancers performed line dances rather than the individual dances that were typical for other kinds of masked dancers. Their movements imitated birds and/or snakes. The dancer, who wore a short grass costume, re-enacted the activities of an ancestor, sometimes in a comic manner. The crest represents the style of hair once worn by male ancestors. The tatanuas were not destroyed after the malagan festival, unlike most of the other art objects created for this ceremonial display.
While the individual elements that make up a particular piece can be identified, the meaning of the piece as a whole changes when the various elements are combined. The interpretation of the person who commissioned the piece may vary from that of other viewers and, indeed, there can be as many interpretations of the piece as there are viewers. The elements used in each piece were chosen by the person who commissioned the piece and were dictated by his knowledge of the relative to be commemorated.
Today this idea, that tatanua masks were they were representations of the spirit or soul (tanua) of dead people, is rejected by New Irelanders, who say that tatanua masks are representations, portraits even, of living individuals. As with many art forms around the world, it seems tatanua were designed to portray the locally conceived criteria of human, in this case, manly beauty. So this mask, like the other tatanua preserved in museum collections, is characterized by an elaborate coiffure, a wide, projecting nose, pierced and distended earlobes, side whiskers, a big mouth, and sound teeth.
Michael C. Gunn.