Lot 9
  • 9

Sulka Helmet Mask, New Britain, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea

100,000 - 150,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Fibers (plant), Wood, Dwarf cassowary feathers
  • Height: 31 in (78.7 cm)
Wowoi Susu or Gitvung Susu

Label inscribed:
Slg. Hch. Lahmann
Aug. 1932
No. 8

Label printed:
Tanzmaske ( Dukduk ) Südküste Neu Pommern, halbe Höhe

S. Neu Pom[m]ern. and 47658


Possibly collected in situ by Richard Parkinson (1844 - 1909), resident in the Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain from 1882 - 1909
Dr Heinrich Lahmann (1860 - 1905), Dresden
Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, August 1932 (No. 47658)
Everett Rassiga, New York, acquired from the above by exchange
Sotheby’s, New York, November 20, 1991, lot 21, consigned by the above
Private Collection, Germany


Anthony JP Meyer, Oceanic Art/Ozeanische Kunst/Art Océanien, Cologne, 1995, p. 372, no. 406

Catalogue Note

The conical form and protuding forehead of this extraordinarily rare mask combines elements of the human with the form of the wowoi salt-water snail in "a manner characteristic of Melanesian thinking on the unity of life forms" (Kaufmann in Beyeler 1997: 266). These masks lent magnificence to initiation ceremonies (the black teeth are a reference to the blackening of the teeth of young male initiates), and as Jeudy-Ballini notes (in Heermann 2001: 114) their primary purpose was to make "the greatest possible aesthetic impact on the audience present at festivities. Described in terms of light and brilliance, the beauty of ritual objects [...]" was ultimately "a sign that cosmological security had been given", not least as the Sulka people did not make a distinction between the beautiful and the divine. "The beautiful makes it possible, in a certain sense, to grasp the divine." (loc. cit.)

Sulka art possesses an ethereal beauty which in many respects seems the embodiment of André Breton's description of Oceanic art as "the sky, the bird and the dream." Made almost entirely of ephemeral plant matter, very few Sulka masks of the age, quality, and preservation of the present lot survive in either institutional or private collections. A similar mask to the present lot was once in the collection which André Breton formed with Paul Eluard; the two surrealist poets were compelled to sell the collection in July 1931 at the Hotel Drouot, Paris. That mask, which appears in Breton’s Nadja, is now in the ‘Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision’ installation at the Menil Collection, Houston (X 0073). Another, from the collection of the legendary Modern art dealer Ernst Beyeler, is in the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (Inv. O.97.1).