- 20th-century Decorative Art
- Arms and Armour
- Books, Manuscripts and Maps
- Classical Antiquities, Coins and Medals
- Clocks, Barometers and instruments
- Jewellery, Snuff Boxes and Miniatures
- Medieval art
- Modern Art
- Oriental and Asian Art
- Paintings, Drawings and Prints
- Porcelain, Ceramics and Glass
- Tribal and Pre-Columbian Art
- Textiles, Carpets and Tapestries
- Works of Art
Thumbs up for ......
An East Sepik, Madang Province, Coastal Region Amuletic Miniature Mask from Papua New Guinea
It is strange fact, but I can claim a link to the aristocracy! Not through blood, I hasten to add, but through ownership of a small New Guinea miniature mask that once belonged to the Earl of Kintore, of Keith hall, Inverurie, Scotland. Unfortunately, there have been quite a few Earls of Kintore and so I am not too certain as to which Earl actually once owned this delightful object, although Algernon Hawkins Thomond Keith-Falconer (1852 – 1930), the 9th Earl of Kintore, served as Governor-General of South Australia between the years 1889 – 1895, and it is possible that he acquired the mask whilst in Australia. During his stay there he travelled, widely visiting such coastal towns as Brisbane and Darwin, where he may have come into contact with people from New Guinea. But, in truth, this is speculation.
The maskette comes from the region around the mouths of the Sepik and Ramu Rivers and the face is similar to those found on small figures, called Ká(n)dimboan(g), that come from the same region. One such figure, formerly in the collection of Joseph Mueller, is now housed in the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva. 
When I bought the maskette, which measures 14 cms by 8 cms, I was told that it was of a type “used to decorate bush string bags, known as bilums, which men used to carry personal ornaments, magical substances and betel chewing equipment”.  The seller gave an estimated date of origin as, “any time after 1800CE, through probably late 19th – early 20th century”. An example of a bilum can be found in the Jolika collection, this example having six amulet figures attached to the bag. 
In the book Shadows of New Guinea  we find two masks. The first is a full size mask (Ht. 40.8 cms) of a type called brag and this is said to be, “from the Mouth of the Sepik River, Murik Watam area, Karau region (?)”. It is similar to my maskette in that it has a “bird beak nose”, slanting eyes, and has a serrated edge around the bottom half of the mask. On the opposite page there is an amulet mask (Ht. 11 cms) from the Lake Murik region of East Sepik Province. This also has a serrated edge around the bottom half of the face. An additional note says that, “This mask is similar in form to brag masks, which are meant to represent ancestral beings…On certain occasions a miniature mask would be fixed to the head of a large brag mask”. 
Another fine brag mask can be seen in the Jolika collection.  This too is similar in form to my maskette. In the notes to this mask we are told that, “The fretted motif bordering the lower half of the mask is called tarer, or dog’s teeth”, while the marks on the chin represent a spider’s web, because “The spider is the perfect designer. The fine, precise lines of its web and the intricacy of the design it produces symbolize the kind of perfection the carver himself is aiming at”. We are also told that the mask represents, “a specific war spirit or spiritman (brag) named Emang.” The Jolika notes also explain the use of brag masks by quoting this vivid description from the book Mangrove Man 
Brag masks (masqueraders) came down from the houses. They were richly decorated and shook as they surrounded the head (of the head-hunted victim). The spirit (mask) slurped at the blood about the head and then shoved it to the next mask. Blood dripped from the mouths of the masks.
Alan Wardwell was somewhat less sensational when he had this to say about brag masks.
Dance masks in human form…represent mythical or actual deceased ancestors. At the time the mask was worn, a song or chant relating specifically to the ancestor it represents was sung. The masks were worn either at community ceremonies such as those celebrating the harvest, fertility, name-giving, marriage and death, or at restricted gatherings such as initiations and other secret society events. 
There are also a number of miniature masks in the Jolika collection, some of which shows similarities to my maskette. 
Yet another brag mask, whose size is not given, can be found in the book Art Papou  Although the mask’s eyes are not slanted, it has a similar nose and a serrated lower edge. There are also three small holes cut into each ear, just as in my maskette. And the three ear piercing can also be seen in a brag mask that is illustrated in volume 2 of The Brigoni Collection This full size mask also has slanted eyes and a serrated edge, which runs around the edge of the whole mask. It is described as, “a Lower Ramu, ceremonial mask”.
Brag masks are seriously collectable today, but at a price! On 24th May, 2010, Sotherby’s New York sold one for $98,500. When it was collected it was probably exchanged for a few tins of corned beef, or possibly a metal axe head. I suppose that this is the point when an object, made for a specific ritual purpose, becomes either an item of ethnographic or artistic value, depending on the intentions of its new owner. At the beginning of the 20th century such masks would have been displayed in Western museums. Today they are just as likely to be seen in leading art galleries.
Much of my interest in tribal art came about by seeing the work of the surrealists, many of whom also collected such art. And I am not surprised that some surrealists preferred Oceanic, Native American and Inuit art to that of Africa. When the surrealists produced their ‘Surrealist Map of the World’ in 1929 it was no surprise to see that New Guinea was shown as being almost as large as Africa. 
African art is often remarkably lifelike, whereas the art of the Oceanic people can sometimes seem to be the stuff of dreams, and surrealism was often based around the dream state, a place where the unconscious can run its own race. According to Andre Breton, “Oceanic art is the sky, the bird, the dream” and that, I think, is what I see in my Sepik River maskette. It is the land of dreams made real. It is reality, but reality from another world.
- Philippe Peltier & Floriane Mornin (eds) Shadows of New Guinea. Art from the Great Island of Oceania in the Barbier-Mueller Collection Somogy editions d’art, Paris & Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, 2006. P. 125, plate 62. Similar figures in the Jolika collection are sometimes called brag. For the latter, see New Guinea Art. Masterpieces from the Jolika Collection Two volumes. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with 5 Continents, San Francisco. 2005. Volume 1, p. 71 & Volume 2, p. 92 – 3. The term brag is discussed further in the main body of the article.
- This statement is almost certainly taken from New Guinea Art. Masterpieces from the Jolika Collection Two volumes. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with 5 Continents, San Francisco. 2005. Volume 2, p. 97.
- Ibid. Volume 1 p. 68.
- Philippe Peltier & Floriane Mornin (eds) Shadows of New Guinea. Art from the Great Island of Oceania in the Barbier-Mueller Collection Somogy editions d’art, Paris & Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, 2006. pp. 120 -121.
- See Adrienne L. Laeppler, Christian Kaufman & Douglas Newton Oceanic Art Abrams, New York. 1993. Colour plate 212. In this case the mask is topped by a complete figure.
- New Guinea Art. Masterpieces from the Jolika Collection Two volumes. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with 5 Continents, San Francisco. 2005. Volume 1, p. 71 & Volume 2, p. 90.
- D. Lipset Mangrove Man: Dialogics of Culture in the Sepik Estuary Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 1997. p.197.
- Allen Wardwell Island Ancestors. Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection University of Washington Press, 1995. p. 46.
- New Guinea Art. Masterpieces from the Jolika Collection Two volumes. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with 5 Continents, San Francisco. 2005. Volume 1, p.124 & Volume 2, pp. 97 – 98.
- Bernard de Grunne Art Papou LME (Louis musin éditeur), Brussels, 1979. p. 79 (plate 6.4).
- Francesco Paolo Campione (ed) The Brigoni Collection – Art through Metamorphosis Two volumes. Mazotta, Milan. 2007. p. 88. Number 286.
- Other illustrations of this type of mask can be found in various publications including Roy Sieber, Douglas Newton & Michael D. Coe African, Pacific and Pre-Columbian Art in the Indiana University Art Museum Indiana University Art Museum in association with Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis. 1986. p. 70. African and Oceanic Art: The Robert and Jean Shoenberg Collection Christie’s sale catalogue, Friday 14th November, 2007, New York. p. 54, plate 74, and Allen Wardwell Island Ancestors. Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection University of Washington Press, 1995. pp. 46 – 49.
- The ‘Surrealist Map of the World’ has been reproduced in many books, including William Rubin (ed) “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1984. Volume 2, p.556.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Michael Yates, All rights reserved.
No portion of this article nor the accompanying illustrations can or may be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Was it of interest? Why not share it with others!