The mask hides as much as it reveals, “denies as much as it affirms”, as Claude Lévi-Strauss asserted. Very often the holder of a secret, the mask conceals that which only the initiated should know.
The mask’s power also lies in its capacity to incarnate spirits, a link between man and his ancestors, between the visible and the invisible world. It is inseparable from a mythical context which structures the mode of existence and thought of the majority of traditional societies.
Central to the life of a group or a community, the mask, an indispensable intercessor, is always active.
Vungvung mask, Papua New Guinea, New Britain, Warangoi River, Baining, Kairak, early 20th century, Rattan, tapa, bamboo, pigments, feathers, 70.2001.9.2
These large masks made from tapa (a cloth made from beaten bark) were attached to a rattan frame. At the centre there is a face with round eyes surrounded by concentric circles and a wide open mouth from which a bamboo tube projects. At the back of the head a long and narrow piece of wood balances the weight of the bamboo. The ends are tied together at the top of the head by plant fibres, to which are attached feathers. There is an opening at the base of the face for the dancer to put their head. The vungvung masks are used during nocturnal male dances. This ceremony contrasts with the diurnal female ceremony devoted to the healthy growth of taro tubers, during which large tapa masks are also used. Worn by dancers painted black, the vungvung masks represent the spirits of the forest. The bamboo amplifies the voice of the dancer inside the mask who blows into the bamboo tube. During its appearances, the vungvung mask was surrounded on both side by screens of painted and braided leaves carried by two men and was preceded by other smaller masks, called kavat. The Baining people make sets of tapa masks which are impressive by their size and inventive shapes. Today these masks are used to celebrate other events, such as the opening of a public building.