Papua New Guinea body painting

[b]Top:[/b] From an image taken by Michael O'Hanlon in Papua New Guinea in 1979.[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Purchased from Eva Cutter in 1901; 1901.57.2Top: From an image taken by Michael O'Hanlon in Papua New Guinea in 1979.
Bottom: Purchased from Eva Cutter in 1901; 1901.57.2
Bride being painted and bamboo tube containing red pigment, Papua New Guinea

In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, self-decoration is associated with festivals and ceremonies where people reinforce their identity as members of a group or clan. Particular combinations of body painting, wigs, feather headdresses, necklaces, armbands, aprons, ear and nose rings signify who you are and where you are from.

This photograph shows Wulamb, a Wahgi girl, preparing to receive her bridewealth prior to marriage. Among many indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea marriages were traditionally arranged to maximise clan advantage. The two families involved exchanged gifts prior to the ceremony. The gift from the groom and his kin, known as a bridewealth, historically consisted of highly prized pearl and bailer (melo amphora) shells. From the 1940s the Australian administration introduced a money economy to the Wahgi communities. Just as the bridewealth had been presented as a row of shells on a huge, feathered banner in previous times, so dollar notes were hoisted up onto banners in this new era.

Wulamb is getting ready in all her finery for this important occasion. She wears a headdress of cassowary and red parrot feathers and is draped in a purple cloth to protect her clothes and ornaments from the powdery face-paint that is being applied. The face is painted, not with any particular design, but to look shiny and glossy as a sign of ancestral favour.

Red, yellow and white remain favourite colours with which to paint the face and body in Papua New Guinea. Today synthetic colours are often used but this bamboo tube with plant-fibre stopper was acquired before 1901 and contained a natural red pigment, the value of which is indicated by the time and effort taken to decorate its surface with carvings. In pre-contact New Guinea, when metal was not available, carving tools were made from local materials such as shell and splinters of basalt. Animal teeth, boars' tusks, or sharpened bird bones were often used for engraving, whilst sanding was done with actual sand or sharkskin.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England