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 (ges), Papua New Guinea, northern New Ireland, early 20th century?, Wood, snail opercula (turbo petholatus), pigments, coconut, reeds, feathers, putty, husks, man-made textiles, 64 x 71 x 52cm, Gift of the Society of Friends of the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography, 71.1930.29.748
In New Ireland, during Malangan funeral rituals, the masks dance to celebrate the end of mourning. This type of masks ends taboos. It brings the period of mourning to an end, thus signalling the final departure of the deceased person’s spirit. Its oblique eyes are characteristic of ges masks, a term which refers to wild spirits. The iconography of Malangan rituals is excessively complex. The “Big Maus” fish, image of death, is found at mouth-level on this mask. Above that, the fight between the bird (here partially broken) and the snake – sculpted in the nose– symbolises the struggle between the forces of life and death. The mask’s “ears” display stylised images of birds. The face decoration also displays other images, such as leaves. These elements are unique to each mask and reveal the social and clannish identity of the deceased. Special copyrights have been awarded to the mask, which explains the wealth of forms in Malangan art.