, Chubwan mask Enlarge 1 /2
  1. 214479.jpg 1/2
  2. 214479_a.jpg 2/2
Pentecost Island Penama province, Vanuatu
Chubwan mask Place made: Pentecost Island, Penama province, Vanuatu Melanesia
Materials & Technique: costume and dress, masks, wood, patina
Dimensions: 24.0 h x 14.5 w x 11.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2011
Accession No: NGA 2011.1284

More detail

This chubwan mask from the Island of Pentecost in Vanuatu is one of only a small number known to exist. A radiocarbon test indicates it is between 400 and 550 years old, making it one of the oldest scientifically tested wooden objects from Vanuatu. Its pronounced cheeks and wide grin are suggestive of benevolent laughter, although the overall countenance is chillingly grotesque.

Chubwan are carved from hardwood with a domed forehead and pierced septum through a bulbous nose. The nose reveals a long‑neglected practice on Pentecost of nasal piercing, or it may be a vulgar caricature of people from adjacent islands who continued this practice into the early twentieth century.

Very little is actually known about the true purpose of chubwan as tradition associated with this mask ceased long ago. We can only speculate as to whether such masks were worn for public festivities or ritual events, although many believe that the masks were worn at events based on the association of men and yams. The wearing of this mask may have offered some form of spiritual protection—as is the case with masks from neighbouring Malakula Island, which were worn to protect the living from the spirits of the dead.

Regardless of the chubwan’s enigmatic function, the artist skilfully created a face that would frighten and intimidate. The deeply undercut brows and the ridge of the lower lip are prominent under the light of a torch, as Felix Speiser, a visitor to the area in 1910, noted in his book Ethnology of Vanuatu: ‘… such a face, seen in the semi-darkness of the forest by the light of flickering torches, must have had a frightful enough effect’.

This exceedingly early Melanesian work joins the Gallery’s small collection of approximately 200 works from Vanuatu.

Crispin Howarth Curator, Pacific Arts


in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012

This chubwan mask from the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu is one of only a small number known to exist. A radiocarbon test indicates that the wood is between 400 and 550 years old. Its pronounced cheeks and wide grin are suggestive of benevolent laughter, although the overall countenance is chillingly grotesque.

Chubwan are carved from hardwood with a domed forehead and pierced septum through a bulbous nose. The nose reveals a long-neglected practice on Pentecost of nasal piercing, or it may be a vulgar caricature of people from adjacent islands who continued this practice into the early twentieth century.

Very little is known about the true purpose of chubwan, as tradition associated with this mask ceased long ago. We can only speculate as to whether such masks were worn for public festivities or ritual events, although many believe that the masks were worn at events based on the association of men and yams. The wearing of this mask may have offered some form of spiritual protection.

Regardless of the chubwan’s enigmatic function, the artist has skilfully created a face that would frighten and intimidate. The deeply undercut brows and the ridge of the lower lip are prominent under the light of a torch, as Felix Speiser, a visitor to the area in 1910, noted in his book Ethnology of Vanuatu: ‘such a face, seen in the semi-darkness of the forest by the light of flickering torches, must have had a frightful enough effect’.

Crispin Howarth, Curator, Pacific Arts


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

The ‘smiling’ wooden masks of Pentecost Island are exceptionally rare and, of the small number known to exist, all have a domed forehead and a pierced septum through a bulbous nose. Chubwan’s pronounced cheeks and wide toothless grin are suggestive of benevolent laughter, tempered with an aspect of the grotesque. It is believed that such masks were worn at events based on the association of men and yams.
The masking tradition that this mask belonged to ceased long ago, and very little is known about its true purpose, although a contemporary version of the Chubwan masking tradition has been revived in the Sa’a communities of Southern Pentecost in the past 20 years. A similar mask in the collection of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre is recorded as being used in a ceremony or ritual performance called Tebatna Lobung.
Regardless of the Chubwan’s earlier enigmatic function, the artist has created a face that can frighten and intimidate. The deeply undercut brows and the ridge of the lower lip would become pronounced under the light of torch fire, as Felix Speiser, a visitor to the area in 1910, noted:

‘such a face, seen in the semi-darkness of the forest by the light of flickering torches, must have had a frightful enough effect.’[1]

The mask’s large nose reveals a long-neglected practice of nasal piercing, or it may be a comical depiction of people from adjacent islands who continued the practice into the early twentieth century.
The National Gallery of Australia’s Chubwan is exceedingly early for a work from Melanesia—a radiocarbon test indicates a substantial age of between some 400 and 550 years old.
Such a date means the mask is perhaps the oldest wooden artwork from Vanuatu.

[1] Speiser, Felix. & Stephenson, D. Q.  Ethnology of Vanuatu: an early twentieth century study / Felix Speiser; translated by D.Q. Stephenson Crawford House Press, Bathurst, N.S.W.:  1990 (1921). p 340.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013

From: Crispin Howarth Kastom: Art of Vanuatu National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013