Mask made from wood, vegetable fibre, barkcloth, opercula of sea snails, feathers, pigment, and a European shoe- or clothes-brush in northern New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. 50 cms high. Donated to the Museum in 1899.
This mask was probably made in the mid-to-late 1880s. Such crested masks are known as tatanua. According to early accounts, they were representations of the spirit or soul (tanua) of dead people. Today this idea 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. The tatanua were worn in public dances in which groups or lines of men were disguised by the masks and garlands of leaves and foliage reaching to their knees. Unlike other known tatanua masks, however, this one is distinguished by the fact that the artist has incorporated a shoe brush into the construction. It is placed on the right temple in the position where a group of dried or chewed pandanus seeds would normally have been embedded in a matrix of resin. The brush may have been found or pilfered. What seems clear is that the artist noticed the similarities between the bristles on a brush and the bristles of a group of dried or chewed pandanus seeds and used it as a ready-made substitute.
This mask is not by any means the only New Ireland mask to show evidence of recycling. Others incorporate fragments of mirrors and strips of cloth in place of barkcloth. Given that the mask may be a portrait, one can speculate that the presence of the brush may indicate that the person portrayed had contacts with Europeans and perhaps was regarded as being part Western. Caption by Michael C. Gunn. (1899.62.405).