This ancient mask’s presence is undoubted, threatening, bordering on the spiritual. It comes from a time before there were written records in Papua New Guinea. The style of the mask, however, originates from the nausung masks from the Kilenge region of West New Britain, the easternmost part of a region that extends westward to the Huon Gulf of mainland New Guinea. This is an area of great mobility, with trade links connecting many islands.
In neighbouring Astrolabe Bay, wood figures were depicted with war rattles protruding from their mouths, but here the mouth comprises two fleshy pierced tongues joined at the tip, perhaps a physical expression of words, a concept too dreadful to utter. These were words meant for a boy in the midst of a major change in his life, as this type of mask was used during circumcision, when boys were taken from their mothers to become men.
Only the eyes of the circumciser wearing the mask would have been visible; his body concealed by leaves, a knife in his hands. The asymmetrical appearance of the face helps create the impression that the mask is a living being. However, viewer’s eyes are continually drawn back to the mouth, with a gaping hole burnt through the teeth, and its bizarre bifurcated tongue.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014