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.
Chubwan mask, Vanuatu, northern Ambrym Island or southern Pentecost Island, end 19th century, Wood, 36.5 x 12.3cm, 72.1999.7.3
This hardwood mask portrays a face with a rounded forehead and a pronounced nose. The eyes, nose and mouth are hollow. The mask finishes at the chin with a handle for holding it in front of the face. The wood has a dark red coating. Chubwan masks play an important role in ceremonies linked to yam tubers (from planting to harvest). The yam holds a central place in Melanesian societies. The first shoots and then harvests are often celebrated by rituals dedicated to the protection of the group’s fertility. The Chubwan masks are used during dances set to chants. They mark the symbolic link between man and the tubers. These rituals disappeared during colonisation and little information has been collected about them. In the south of the Pentecost Island, this mask tradition has regained vitality since 1991 due to the transfer of intellectual and artistic property rights. The same wooden mask tradition existed in the north of the Ambrym Island, but their use seems to have disappeared.