WESTERN IATMUL SPIRIT MASK (MAI)
Middle Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
Wood, pig (Sus scrofa) tusks, conus shell
Height: 16 in (40.6 cm)
Harry A. Franklin, Beverly Hills, acquired by the 1960s
George R. Ellis, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, San Diego, 2009, p. 63, cat. no. 37
San Diego Museum of Art, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, January 31, 2009 - January 3, 2010
Mai masks are used throughout the Iatmul area, but differences exist between those made by the Western and Eastern Iatmul. The present example is sensitively modelled with a subtle naturalism that suggests a fleshy, human presence, an impression heightened by the intense and focussed expression of its conus shell eyes.
In its overall form this mask conforms with Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin’s description of Western (Nyaula) Iatmul masks, which she characterises as being “convex, the backs are slightly hollowed out, have a bulging lower forehead, sometimes a protruding horizontal eyebrow ridge and deep-set eyes” (Hauser-Schäublin, "The Dancers Who Became Transformed into Wood", Oceania, Vol. 87, No. 3, 2017, p. 239).
Whether Western or Eastern Iatmul, the most characteristic and prominent feature of almost all mai masks is the elongated form know as molot which starts below the nostrils and then “gradually narrows and reaches what seems to be the chin by ending in an animal shape […]” (ibid., p. 238), which here depicts a bird.