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: A Mask from the Astrolabe Bay Area


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In northern New Guinea, among Austronesian and non-Austronesian groups inhabiting the coastal belt and off-coast islands roughly from Humboldt Bay (near the Indonesian border) to as far as Lae in the inner side of the Huon Gulf, a peculiar cultural complex was discovered during the first white contact. The most conspicuous feature of this complex, which is most probably of East Indonesian origin and connected with late Melanesian immigration,1 is a cycle of rites often lasting for months during which boys of the communities are initiated into the secrets of the cult while, at the same time, the full status of manhood is conferred upon them.By combining what we know of the events of the cyclic sequence of rites with descriptions, so often rather fragmentary in character, of their ideological background, we can gain a basically integrated view of this cultural complex. The focus of the cult and of the rites attached to it is a monsterlike spirit known by various names in different regions (e.g., Barak, Balum, Ai, Asa, etc.). According to a myth explaining the origin of the cult, the spirit is a hostile being that eats humans: while villagers in the mythic past were working in their garden, the spirit stayed at home and devoured their children. Men, enraged by the disappearance of the children, spied on him, forced him into his hut, and set fire to it. From the bones of the dead spirit several plants supposedly grew (among them the coconut), and these plants are used to make the sacred musical instruments played during the initiation ceremony.Initiation ceremonies take place at long (sometimes ten- to fifteen-year) intervals. At the beginning of the ritual the initiates—sometimes from a single village, sometimes from several friendly villages—are separated from the other members of the community and are secluded in a spirit house far from human settlements, usually in the forest. During the first phase, the boys, who may range in age from four to fifteen years, ritually assume the roles of the children devoured by the spirit, and during the liminal period of their initiation they are considered to be dead by members of the community, especially by women and uninitiated children.It is not unusual for the initiatory house, where boys are secluded, to be constructed in the form of a monster. Through a small hole in the building’s front, which symbolizes the monster’s mouth, the boys creep inside its “body” where they remain throughout the ritual, closely supervised by elder men. On the occasion of the devouring, the monster “bites” the boys’ penes, that is, they undergo circumcision, the essential act of initiation. (This can be either excision or incision or other manipulation of the genitals and is usually executed by a specialist with an obsidian blade.) While their wounds are healing, and often for a longer period, the boys must abide by strict rules. They are forbidden to meet the uninitiated, especially women (should any of these uninitiated come near the spirit house, they are warned by the sound of ritual instruments, usually a bull-roarer); certain food taboos are enforced; and they abstain from bathing. During their seclusion the boys are acquainted with the secret of the masks, with ritual objects, traditions, and myths, and they learn behavioral and moral rules. Usually when they are told the secret of the masks or when the man representing the spirit appears in front of them, they are slapped, shaken, and spat upon, and they must vow never to disclose the secrets of the cult.The period of seclusion ends with a great festival. The boys are “returned to life” by the spirits in exchange for the sacrifice of a pig (he “spits them out”),2 and they appear in the village elaborately garbed in new loincloths, sitting on the shoulders of their fathers or matrilineal uncles who form a ceremonial procession. The boys who “died” as children have been “revived” as grown ups, as men.3The most significant traits of the initiation rite are its symbolic actions, and these manifest themselves with local variations within the geographical area mentioned above. Thus within the general cultic complex the similarity of certain traits, as well as the specific connection of certain elements, can be traced in larger or smaller areas. These areas, furthermore, show certain similarities not only in the process of the sequence of rites and in the underlying religious ideology, but also in the cultic objects themselves, which are similar in style. This is the situation in the Astrolabe Bay art area as well. This region is found within the present Madang administrative district and includes the coastal belt and the smaller and larger outlying islands (among them Karkar and Bagbag) from the western Cap Croisilles to the east roughly as far as the boundaries of the Morobe district.4During the initiation rites of the district, especially in the villages of Astrolabe Bay proper, masks, flutes, bull-roarers, ocarinas, pumpkin-horns, dance-rattles, and, occasionally, smaller or larger sculptures are used.5 Of these objects, masks are the most significant in the cult as regards both their role and their artistic form. While the musical instruments imitate the voice of the spirit, the mask personifies the monster—the devouring spirit—during the cult process. The names of the masks suggest an identity of masks with the spirit. Thus, in Bogadjim Village, where the spirit is called Asa, the mask is called Asa-kate, that is, “Asa-head,” while in neighboring Bongu, its name is the same as that of the spirit, Ai. The masks and other ceremonial objects were kept in a separate house, in the Asa- Ai-, etc., house, which women and uninitiated persons were forbidden to enter. In some communities this house, which was owned by the community, also served as the initiation hut. During the final ceremony men fetched the masks from these houses to the village. Only men “wearing strange masks” were allowed to take part in a ceremony witnessed by N. N. Miklucho-Maclay in Bongu in the 1870s.6 G. Kunze described a ceremony in Karkar Island where the boys to be initiated lined up in front of the cult house before men and women. Then a man appeared “with a huge mask on his head and a boar tusk in his hands. For some minutes he walked in front of the boys, then with peculiar movements of his head he presently stopped in front of one of the candidates, glared at him, then hit him on the forehead with his fist and thus declared him mature. During these proceedings the youth displayed the greatest solemnity and attention. Moreover, on some faces fear and even horror could be noticed.”7The spirit personified by the mask did not appear only during the initiation ceremony, however. Miklucho-Maclay also recounts that “sometimes the Ai wanders from one village to another,” mainly at the feast called Sel’mun. At this time “a sham fight is fought between the invading Ai and the male members of the Sel’mun.” B. Hagen, who worked in this district as a physician in the 1890s, records that the masked Asa-spirit, accompanied by the voice of the Asa-horn, appears at the bier of the dead to paint the dead and to decorate them with flowers.8There are hardly any descriptive field data on the formal versions of the masks, or on how they are made, or on who makes them. Miklucho-Maclay made a drawing on the spot of a masked man, but does not provide any accompanying description. Although Kunze writes at some length about the mask of the man personifying the Barak spirit during a similar ceremony, we only learn from him that on the huge mask the “facial part looked awful, resembling some antediluvian monster rather than a human face. To the top of the mask a decorated pole was fastened, some two meters in height. This not only made the mask extremely heavy to wear, but caused the wearer great difficulty in keeping his balance.”9 Nor does Hagen give any more detailed a description: “They are of wood, made with the stone-axe and shell-knife, and though somewhat rough and clumsy they are really remarkable considering the primitive tools they have been executed with.”10The provenance of masks from private collections or museums is only partly reliable. Many of these actually come from the inner regions of Astrolabe Bay but were acquired in the coastal-regions. Other objects are labeled only “German-New-Guinea.”11 The attempt to identify provenance, then, must rely solely on characteristics of style, but the attempt is further complicated by the fact that this region has had active trade connections with the Umboi-Siassi region, especially towards the east,12 which might have resulted in a synthesis of religious practices and artistic styles. It can be stated hypothetically, and it is not unjustified to assume, that this cultural and art area was at one time larger and included the western parts of New Britain, together with Umboi and other islands.13 Unreliability of data and strong differences of formal variants mean that we have to rely on style analysis to a greater extent than for any other art area.When comparing the masks known to be from this area to each other and to several other figural representations from the region, we are able to distinguish one basic type and its variants. All of the masks are anthropomorphic; all can be put on the head, wholly covering the face; most are rounded at the jaw, sometimes ending in a point. The eyes are carved in relief and have a tear-drop shape with the point turned towards the edge of the mask, or they have a projecting, cylindrical shape. The masks are pierced under the eyes. The ears are sometimes portrayed in an elongated, rather distorted fashion, with earrings, but on other masks are barely described at all. The nose can be curved or straight, with or without prominent nostrils. Further elements of this style are a mouth slightly opened to show the teeth (sometimes with a little gag, that is, a small, protruding piece of wood held between the lips) and the curvilinear form of the eyebrows. On the round or flat top a star-shaped relief carving often occurs, surmounted by a pointed finial.14On the basis of comparisons it seems that the mask in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts belongs unequivocally to this tradition. The form of the mask itself, the curve of the eyebrows, the open mouth with the cut showing, most probably, the teeth, the gag in the mouth, the flat nose and well-defined nostrils, and the small ears—all these show signs of this style. On the other hand, the conspicuously projecting cylindrical eyes, the line of the V-shaped cut running alongside the edge of the face, and the human figures placed on both sides stand without parallels. The latter do not differ greatly from characteristics of other well-known masks from the region, even though the conical heads surmounted by lenticular forms seem to be unfamiliar formal element.Relying on the analysis of similar and different elements, we can place the mask’s origins within the Astrolabe Bay region; though, due to lack of analogies, it is impossible to give a more precise provenance. It can be provisionally stated, mainly on the basis of the Umboi mask in the Museum for Völkerkunde Basel,15 that it must have been made and used on the Rai Coast—a little known area considering its art; at least the cuts filled with lime and the carving on the lower part of the nose suggest the influence of the Umboi and Tami style.Tibor Bodrogi is director of the Hungarian Academy of Ethnology. He is the author of numerous publications on ethnographic art, including L’Art de L’Oceanic, Art in Africa, and The Art of Indonesia.Endnotes
  1. This was emphasized for the first time by A. B. Deacon, who compared characteristics of the Kakihan society of Ceram and the Balum cult of the Huon Gulf (“The Kakihan Society of Ceram and New Guinea Initiation Cult,”Folklore 36 [1925]: 332-361). This point of view even if not referring to Ceram, was accepted by further studies; e.g., according to Speiser: “it seems admissible to consider the spirit’s swallowing the candidate to be a Melanesian element which in New Guinea penetrated far into the pre-Austronesian area” (“Kulturgeschichtlihe Betrachtungen Über die Initiationen der Südsee,” Bulletin der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Anthropologie und Ethnologie, 1945-1946, pp. 1-34).
  2. An interesting point is that the myth does not say anything about the further fate of the monster. According to a special mythological logic, although it perished (in body) it lives on, as a spirit, no longer devouring children, but living on pigs. This feature may represent the difference in practices between the non-cannibalistic Melanesian and the earlier non-Melanesian population.
  3. This does not contradict the fact that among the initiated there are four- and five-year-old children as well. The main aim of circumcision is, at least according to local interpretation, to eliminate “female blood” from boys and thus enable them to live a wholly male life.
  4. See T. Bodrogi, “Some Notes on the Ethnography of New Guinea,” Acta Ethnographica 3 (1953): 91-144; and “New Guinean Style-Provinces: Astrolabe Bay,” in Opuscula Ethnologica Memoriae Ludovici Biro Sacra (Budapest, 1959), pp. 33-99.
  5. These sculptures, generally known as telum, and mainly those larger than one meter in size, portray two cultural heroes and the female character of their myth system (Kilibob, Manub, and Rorpain, respectively), according to C. A. Schmitz. The myth tells the story of one of the brothers’ adultery with Rorpain, their fights, and the consequent parting and wandering of the brothers. The area of the mythologema roughly coincides with the area of the cultural complex (Bodrogi, “Notes”).
  6. N. N. Miklucho-Maclay, “Ethnologische Bemerkungen ueber die Papuas der Maclay Küste in New Guinea, “Naturkundig Tijdschrift voor Nëderlandsch-Indie 36 (1876): 332-333.
  7. G. Kunze, “Allerlei Bider aus dem Leben der Papua,” Rheinische Missionsschriften Barmen, 1897, Hft.3.
  8. B. Hagen, Unter den Papuas in Deutsch-Neu-Guinea (Wiesbaden, 1899), p. 259.
  9. Kunze, “Allerlie Bilder.”
  10. Hagen, Unter den Papuas, p. 172.
  11. A general feature of early collections is the lack of location of provenance; this is also the case for objects in European and American collections that were collected before the turn of the century. German colonization began in 1884, and an administrative center was founded in the inner part of Astrolabe Bay (Stephansort, Konstantinhafen) and later in the present-day Madang (Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen). The rapid cultural change and the disappearance of cultic objects brought about by the colonization are demonstrated by the fact that while the Hungarian collector S. Fenichel could obtain as many as sixteen masks in 1891-1893, L. Biro, who followed him in 1897, could not find any. The Mikucho-Maclay collection of Leningrad does not contain any masks either, apparently because tribesmen who had no white contact in the beginning of the 1870s did not want to give away their sacred objects.
  12. On the trade system of northeast New Guinea see T. G. Harding, Voyagers of the Vitiaz Strait: A Study of a New Guinea Trading System, American Ethnological Society Monograph, no. 44 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967); on the relationship of style-provinces and trading areas see T. Bodrogi, “Style Provinces and Trading Areas in North and Northeast New Guinea,” in Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania, ed. Sidney Mead (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979), pp. 265-277.
  13. Artistic objects from Umboi show a transitional style between that of Astrolabe Bay and that of Tami: T. Bodrogi, “Data Regarding the Ethnography of Umboi and the Siassi Islands (Northeast New Guinea),” Acta Ethnographica 18 (1969): 187-228. The same formal likeness holds true for the initiation masks—called nausung—of the Kilenge of western New Britain; see Philip J. C. Dark, Kilenge Art and Life (London: Academy Editions, 1974) and “The Art of the Peoples of Western New Britain and their Neighbors,” Exploring the Visual Arts of Oceania, ed. Sidney Mead (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979), pp. 13 130-158. At the same time it seems possible that the wave of Melanesian immigrants first settled on the coastal islands. According to C. A. Schmitz the migration took place in the form of “Inselsprung,” and only later did Melanesian groups settle among indigenous non-Austronesian groups living on the coast and on the islands: “Historische Problems in Nordost-Neuguinea, Huon-Halbinsel,” Studien zur Kulturkunde, vol. 16 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1960).
  14. On analogies see Bodrogi, “Notes,” figs. 1-19 (see n. 4 above); Dark, Kilenge, figs. 82-95 (see n. 11 above); with masks of nausung and Umboi and Tami style; and Dark, “Art of the Peoples,” figs. 16-17 (see n. 11 above). On sculptures see Bodrogi, “Notes,” figs. 26-38. On the Tami style see T. Bodrogi, Art in North-East New Guinea (Budapest: Publishing House of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1961).
  15. Dark, Kilenge, fig. 81.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. New Guinea, Astrolobe Bay
    Mask, XIX century
    Wood, 21 1/2 x 12 3/8 inches
    The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 78.8
  2. Men playing sacred musical instruments at an initiation rite, Astrolobe Bay, Bilibili Island. Photo by L. Biro (1897)
  3. A masked figure from Astrolabe Bay, Bongu. Drawing by Miklucho-Maclay (1870/1)
  4. New Guinea, Astrolobe Bay
    Mask (brown)
    18 1/2 inches (47 cm)
    Collected by S. Fenichel 1891-1893
    Ethnographical Museum Budapest, no. 8.927
  5. New Guinea, Astrolobe Bay
    Mask (dark brown)
    27 1/8 inches (69 cm)
    Collected by S. Fenichel 1891-1893
    Ethnographical Museum, Budapest, no. 8.922
  6. Side view of Mask in figure 5
  7. New Guinea, Astrolobe Bay
    Mask (blackish with traces of red paint)
    17 3/4 inches (45 cm)
    Collected by S. Fenichel 1891-1893
    Ethnographical Museum Budapest, no. 8.920
  8. New Guinea, Astrolobe Bay
    Mask (blackish with traces of red paint)
    16 1/2 inches (42 cm)
    Ethnographical Museum, Budapest, no. 8.925
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Source: Tibor Bodrogi, "A Mask from the Astrolabe Bay Area," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 64 (1978-1980): 80-87.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009