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.
Mask, Australia, The Torres Strait Islands, 19th century, sea turtle shell, wood, plant fibres, cassowary feathers, 57 x 25 x 32cm, 70.2004.1.3
This sea turtle shell mask is assembled out of separate pieces. The long, narrow nose is attached to the face by braided plant fibres. The edges of the mouth, inside which are carved sharp teeth, and the eyes are coated with a layer of resin. The forehead, chin and area around the eyes are decorated with regularly spaced dots which form circles and lines which bring life to the surface. The edge of the face is surrounded by an openwork collar. This mask is probably fragmentary. There are other known examples of masks which display an animal head (for example, a crocodile) jutting out below the face. These turtle shell masks therefore also combine human and zoomorphic figures, images of mythical or supernatural beings. They are used during funeral and initiation ceremonies, and even during fertility rituals. These turtle shell masks were reported from 1606 by the Spanish explorer Diego de Prado. However, their production stopped during the 19th century, just before Haddon’s scientific expedition (1898), which constituted the first study of the Torres Strait region. Today, this type of mask is again being made, but with some interesting changes. The turtle shell has been replaced by metal, the shininess of which reminds people of the original material. In Oceania, shine is often associated with the presence of ancestors. The ingenious composite masks are made and worn by contemporary artists.