E.E. sends me a huge Oceanic tribal mask from Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River area. This would scare anyone with its awesome energy. E.E. tells me her husband won't have it hanging in their home. He doesn't want to come upon it as he raids the fridge at 2 AM, she says. The mask is painted on light wood, the face with extensive shell inlay under hair composed of straggly tail feathers. Although the face is anthropomorphic, just how much of the human is in this piece and how much of the animal spirit world?
Some of these Sepik River masks range from a few inches to quite a few feet, and could be worn in any location over the body, and in fact, some were not used by human dancers at all. Masks could grace special musical instruments, and head the bows of favorite canoes, or blessed personal lucky charms.
The mask, although presently owned by a woman, was more than likely never handled by a woman in its own culture. Only men who were initiated, and knew exactly what the mask stood for, could handle, wear and dance the spirit of the mask. In fact, when the mask was not in use during the dance, only a select few males knew where the shaman stored this sacred item.
This type of material culture is Oceanic or Melanesian: perhaps no other mask-making culture has so many different and widely produced masks as the New Guinean culture.
The valuation question: is E.E.’s mask made for ritual purposes or did the natives make it to sell to tourists? A large variety of Papua New Guinean masks were made for ritual, and made for tourists, but never for BOTH. Only the ones made for the purposes of ritual ceremony are the really valuable ones.
The question is – how can E.E. tell? Besides picking up the energy of the mask, experts look for certain characteristics of ceremonial use. One of the most interesting of those features is evidence of a ‘bite-stick’. Take, for example, the Sepik masks that have riffled pierced crenellations lining the sides of the face of the masks. These holes were meant to thread a stick, and the stick was meant to hold the human face to the back of the mask face with the teeth of the wearer.
Another indication of ceremonial use is more subtle: that is, the expression of the mask. Power and menace should shine through the simplicity of the mask, and certain features, such as eyes or lips or ears should be exaggerated to that end. Remember, throngs of people saw these creatures as wearers danced by, constantly moving.
Not only wood is used as the base medium of New Guinea masks. On some, a deep natural red pigment covers the mask. Others are packed with shells that are set in some kind of sacrificial amalgam material. The area of shells, like those on E.E.’s mask, are segmented in areas around the chin and in bands. Very few masks feature women’s faces except the mosquito masks; many of these were produced, because of their novelty, for tourists.
A few peoples of the Sepik River wove basketry masks in elaborate swirls, and some of these were worn as hats. Some of the basket masks are so detailed as to be other-worldly, with huge protuberances of eye sockets and lips. Each region around the long river had a distinctive feature to their masks, for example, the full-body rattan masks from the Papua Gulf, and the conical shaped embrasure masks covered with tapa cloth, painted in shades of red, white and black, the favored colors of Sepik masks.
The masks are part of a complete dancing costume composed of raffia and fibers with plenty of swirling capacity. Huge circular eyes, 3-4 feet tall surmount Baining masks. Each region celebrated something distinctive in its people, such as masks with huge pierced ears, or elaborate Mohawk hair crests.
E.E.’s mask is large and so detailed with shells; I suspect that if it had been ceremonially danced, it may not have come down to us in this kind of perfect condition, because the same mask was danced numerous times in ritual. Also, the protein base of shells and tall feathers tend to be eaten after a good period of use and years. Thus, I am not sure E.E.’s mask is old enough to have been used ceremonially, although today, the Sepik culture still dances its masks. I place the value in the $600-700 range.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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