Wapo Creek or Era River Mask, Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea
- bark cloth, rattan
Daniel Hourdé, Paris, acquired from the above
Eduardo Uhart, Paris, acquired from the above
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above
S2 Gallery, New York, Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, November 18 - December 16, 2011
Lisa Dennison and Adam Gopnick (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, New York, 2011, p. 121
No author, "Art in Motion", Tribal Arts Magazine, No. 69, Autumn 2013, p. 28
Among the most extraordinary objects that were collected from the Papuan region (or from the former British New Guinea) beginning in the 1880s is a series of enormous masks or full-body headdresses made and used by people from the Papuan Gulf. The best known of these masks were made by the Elema people toward the eastern end of the Gulf, where they are called Hevehe west of Vailala, and Semese around Kerema and to the east. Similar masks were made in the Purari Delta (where they are called Aiaimunu) and further west along Gope creek and Era river (where they are called Keveke). From its style this mask is probably from the western area.
Across the Papuan Gulf initiated men make these masks in secret in one of the men’s longhouses, away from the eyes of women or uninitiated boys. They begin with a flat, rattan base, typically an oval reaching 1.5 to 4 meters tall and a meter or so wide. Several men sew the barkcloth façade to the rattan frame. They outline the sections of the polychrome design, especially the mouth, the eyes, and the designs above the face with fiber, sewn into place. Later they paint within the fiber sections using red ochre, white clay, and black charcoal pigments. Emerging from the flat face of the mask is a dramatic projection of a mouth. The face is nearly always situated near the bottom of the mask, and always emphasizes powerful and piercing eyes. In the Elema and Purari groups mouths have a ferocious set of teeth made from thorns. Further west the mouths are made of plaited rattan without teeth. The designs around the eyes are typically associated with particular clans indicating that the mask represents a bush spirit or river spirit that looks after and protects the clan. The design above the eyes can represent any number of images associated with the clan. In some cases the post-cranial part of the spirit, that is to say the spirit’s body below the neck is depicted in the barkcloth panel above the eyes (see Welsch, 2006, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance, Hood Museum of Art). Nearly all of the Keveke, Hevehe, and Semese designs are highly stylized and fanciful suggesting to people in the Papuan Gulf their power over living people. The western style at Era and Wapo is the most spare of all the regions, a fact that mimics the simpler designs found on the carved and painted boards known as Gope. In recent decades after Urama villagers began carving boards for sale to foreign visitors in Port Moresby, the designs on their Gope have become much more complex, but boards collected in the 1920s and 1930s are nearly always spare with bold lines. These spare designs and imagery is at the heart of the Wapo and Era people’s aesthetic and contrasts sharply with the neighboring Purari Delta people’s aesthetic.
Across the region the masks were used in a limited number of rituals that involved a public dance performance. John Vandercook was told in 1933 that they were held only once in seven years. While this comment may suggest they were associated with male initiation rituals, anthropologists know few specifics of local ritual. When wearing one of these masks, a man held a rattan and wooden frame over his shoulders to support the tall barkcloth and rattan mask over his head. His body was concealed by a profusion of palm leaves and a plaited sheath connected to the face of the mask that concealed all of his body except his feet and calves from the women and children who watched the performance. Men said that when they put on these masks they became the clan spirit represented in the mask, and the spirit allowed them to do remarkable feats, such as dance from canoe to canoe along the river banks.
Most of what we know about these masks comes from the detailed descriptions of F. E. Williams in his book Drama of Orokolo (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940). Orokolo was one of the last Elema communities to use the masks as they had largely disappeared by 1900 in the eastern villages of Motu-Motu and Maive and by World War I in Kerema. Williams first encountered these masks in 1922 at Vailala where he investigated the destruction of traditional art objects including masks as a consequence of the cargo cult known as the Vailala Madness. Part of the ritual of the new religion was aimed at attracting European wealth and respect to Papuans but required abandoning all forms of traditional ritual practice, destroying dozens of Hohao boards, and all types of masks. No masks were made after 1921 in the Vailala region. In 1912 Field Museum curator A. B. Lewis had seen many at Vailala and inland at Kiri (Welsch, 1998, An American Anthropologist in Melanesia, University of Hawaii Press).
Further west in the Purari Delta the Aiaimunu masks tended to be tall and somewhat narrower than in Orokolo. We know from photographs taken by field researchers that Lewis in 1912, as well as A. C. Haddon (in 1914), P. B. de Rautenfeld (in 1925), and Paul Wirz (in 1930) had all observed many Aiaimunu in the men’s longhouses (Welsch et al., 2006, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance). About 1935 the Purari Delta people suddenly abandoned their traditional ritual carvings, rituals, and masks as they became Seventh Day Adventists. Abandonment of the rituals and art has long been associated with the Purari reformer Tommy Kabu, who saw the masks, carvings, and the men’s longhouses themselves as a barrier to modernization (Robert Maher, 1961, New Men of Papua, University of Wisconsin Press).
Further west in the Wapo, Era, and Urama districts these masks were used until at least the late 1950s. The photographer Frank Hurley and naturalist A. R. McCulloch saw a number of masks at Urama in 1923, including what may be the only extant movie footage of these being used in a performance (Hurley’s 1923 film Pearls and Savages). A number of foreign visitors collected carved boards and a handful of masks from this western part of the Gulf, but their most important contribution is in documenting them photographically. These photographic records were made by Wirz (in 1930), the American photographer John Vandercook (1933), and most recently Thomas Schultze-Westrum, who in the early 1960s largely saw boards and masks discarded and abandoned to the elements (Welsch et al., 2006, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance).
Robert L. Welsch, PhD
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Franklin Pierce University, September 2013