The right mask:
Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, Masques d'Océanie, April 1985
Musée Dapper, Paris, Visions d'Océanie, October 22, 1992 - March 15, 1993
The right mask:
Jean Paul Barbier, Indonésie et Mélanésie. Art tribal et cultures archaïques des Mers du Sud, Geneva, 1977, p. 46
Vincent Bounoure, Visions d'Océanie, Paris, 1992, pp. 111, 224
Christian Kaufmann, Masques d'Océanie, Geneva, 1985, pp. 14-15, cat. 11 (not illustrated)
Douglas Newton and Hermione Waterfield, Sculpture. Chef-d'oeuvres du Musée Barbier-Mueller, Paris, 1995, pp. 288-289
Douglas Newton (ed.), Arts of the South Seas. The Collections of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Munich/London/New York, 1999, p. 226, fig. 3
"Things of Gladness"
When asked to describe this art form, the Elema people succinctly replied "these are things of gladness" (Williams 1940: 289). This marvelous and very rare pair of eharo masks reflects the joy and ingenuity in the arts of the Papuan Gulf.
These extraordinary masks were reportedly collected together by a British missionary in the late nineteenth century (Newton 1999: 226). It is remarkable in itself that they survive, as hundreds of barkcloth sculptures were returned to Europe by mission workers before the turn of the twentieth century, but the fragile character of the materials greatly diminished the number of masks that exist today. However, what makes the pair unique is their preservation in the same collection. After having been separated for about twenty years they were reunited again in the JOLIKA Collection in the 1990s.
The first European visitors to the Papuan Gulf reached its western shore in the early seventeenth century, but sustained contact did not take place until the late nineteenth century on the eastern shore near Port Moresby, the present day capital of Papua New Guinea. In 1874, the Rev. William Lawes established a mission in this location and although being a devoted follower of his own religion he appreciated, chronicled, photographed, and collected many works of art from the region. See Webb 1997 for further discussion. Lawes' diaries and publications, and those of his colleagues from the London Missionary Society (LMS) such as James Chalmers, John Holmes, Henry Dauncey and others, provide us with the early descriptions of the culture and art (Welsch, Webb and Haraha 2006: 53-56, 80-81).
In May 1912, the American ethnologist Albert B. Lewis saw many examples of Elema masks in production and noted the intense labor and significant lengths of time it took to construct these artworks (Welsch 1998, vol.1: 484). The Australian government anthropologist and photographer Frances E. Williams lived in Papua for almost twenty years and was one of the few outsiders to witness a complete masking cycle (Young and Clarke 2001: V). He documented numerous dancers in full costume and his publications provide the most complete accounts.
The Elema peoples are known for their virtuoso artistic talents especially in the construction of striking masks made of cane, rattan, and barkcloth that performed in ritual cycles. There are three principal mask forms. Tall oval masks called semese or hevehe were quite revered as they represented sea monster spirits and had projecting beaks. Other masks, called kovave, were of conical shapes, also had beaks (as seen in the JOLIKA masks) and distinctive eye patterns. The kovave were worn by young men during specific parts of initiation cycles (Welsch 2006: 24).
The dazzling pair of masks from the JOLIKA Collection, however, is of the third type, called eharo. The term literally means "dance-head piece" (Williams 1940: 289, 451). Conical in form like the kovave, eharo masks fit directly over a man's head. Eharo are often distinguished by added sculptural elements on the top of the mask depicting totemic animals (aualari) such as birds, fish, reptiles, etc, and are usually danced in pairs (Williams 1940: 266, 342). The eharo were not made in secret like the other Elema masks; women saw the materials of construction and knew that men danced them. While fanciful, the majority of figures and creatures on the masks represent aualari in some form, which are derived from myths or come to the artist in dreams (Williams 1940: 288, 342). The combinations of motifs and characters provide often subtle meanings. Eharo masks displayed great artistry and wit in their design combinations and were performed as entertainment for the entire village.
As seen on the lower conical faces of the JOLIKA pair, each Elema clan used distinctive eye designs, making the owner of the sculpture identifiable to all who saw it. On both masks, spherical black pupils are positioned within concentric bands of brown and white pigments. The round eyes are embedded in a curvilinear black design; beginning as jagged dentate elements parallel to the bridge of the nose that echoes the pattern on the edges of the characteristic triangular ear projections. This style of decoration is seen in an eharo mask previously owned by André Breton and Paul Eluard (Rubin 1984: 114). The symmetrical black motif expands outward via several fluid linear swirls emanating from the corners of the eyes onto the cheeks and forehead. Similar eye patterns are also found in classic eharo masks such as one in The British Museum, London (Chauvet 1930: 47, fig. 154).
In traditional eharo fashion, at the top of the cone shaped face, each mask has a smaller head with a slender neck leading to a set of downward stretched, wing-like arms, jutting from the sides. There is human hair on both heads, each has minimal remnants of ears and the nose septums are pierced where an ornament would be inserted. Frances E. Williams made a drawing of a similar head that he described as "model human head on bird eharo" (Williams 1940: 268, fig. 17). In 1931, he also photographed eharo with a wide head of hair and described it as "a secluded boy with a large mop of hair" and another pair with beaks on the conical faces and hornbill birds on top (Williams 1940: 267, pl. 32; also in Young and Clarke 2001: 200). Based on this field information, the splendid JOLIKA eharo masks can be interpreted as a merger of human and avian forms.
One can only imagine how the two masks flew into the dance grounds of the village, as the accomplished costumed dancers rushed into the crowd in pairs, playing drums, singing and dancing, while escorted by adoring women who cleared the way.
Virginia-Lee Webb, Ph.D.
New York, April 2011
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