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Oceanic Masks

Oceanic Masks are features of the life of many of the peoples of this area. As in other cultures influenced by the West the traditions are becoming less strong. Even so it is still possible to collect recently used or created masks which have been danced or made to be danced.

Oceanic Masks in Melanesia

The islands of Melanesia still maintain a strong tradition of masquerade. In line with the masks of both African and North American Masks there are strong thematic links between the various cults showing reverence for the tribal ancestors.

Many Melanesian people are Christian but still retain the old rites. The societies that were created to control the spirits of the ancestors also carry out initiation rites.

Papua New Guinea, the largest island of the group, has some prolific mask makers along the Sepic river. Ceremonies take place in the Tambara, the men’s meeting house. A wide variety of styles and materials are used in the making of the masks.

The middle Sepik masks are made from wood, split cane, rattan or a mixture of them all. They are often conical in shape and some large masks cover the arms of the trunk of the wearer with holes for his arms. Clay and wood masks would be used to decorate the Oceanic masks. Other materials include cowrie and nassa shells. Some other masks were woven in the forms of animals.

An area of mud flats and rivers around the Gulf of Papua has a masking tradition based around the use of bark cloth. First a cane frame is constructed over which the bark cloth is stretched, then split cane is added to reinforce the overall black and white design. All masks of this type are conical in shape.

To the east of New Guinea, the island of New Britain has masks of similar construction with the exception of the far eastern end of the island.

Here the masks are huge, being 30 to 40 foot high. Called Hareiga, they are carried by a large group of men in a ceremony to commemorate last year’s dead, and also to celebrate the ripening of the taro harvest. As with other areas, the same mask can celebrate different aspects of the cycle of life and rebirth.

The neighbouring island of New Ireland has an active tradition which produces mask which have a striking resemblance to some of the West Coast American ones, with their black white and red surface designs.

Tatanua masks are made for the Malanggan, a major event which is a second burial ceremony to commemorate the deceased and invest the annual initiates. The death of a chief involves a considerable outlay in food and decoration, including the building of ceremonial house.

The masks have high headdresses attached to them which resemble Roman helmets. Other traditions of note occur on the islands of Vanuatu where the carefully graded ranks of society on Malekula are displayed through masks and headdresses.

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