helmet mask (Tatanua)

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Tatanua masks appear at the funerals of important community leaders. The large crest and ornamentation represent the idealized male. The individual who sponsors the masks also selects the dances and music for the ceremony. A male chorus accompanied by musicians playing slit drums provides the music.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

The volumetric grandeur of tatunua helmet masks, used in New Ireland funeral rites, marks the degree of prestige the living can earn for the deceased by making and dancing with masks. A textured assemblage of plant substances, cloth, and other materials, the ornamental crest of the mask may signify an idealized male, a portrait of an ancestor, or the vertical hairstyles historically worn during mourning periods. A rainbow of red, yellow, and white pigments signifies male manipulations of wartime sorcery, and the villagewide male cooperation needed to produce these masks. Designed to be viewed in profile and decorated with asymmetrical patterns, helmet masks make a thrilling display during the climactic days of mortuary rites.

The men of a village might spend a year preparing for funeral ceremonies by sculpting the masks and composing choral and percussive music and special line dances—all performed by men, since social contact with women, in their belief system, lessens male energy. Rather than constructing a lasting memorial, New Irelanders engage in the extended, collective imaginative act of preparing the ritual performance called malangan, an occasion for the celebrants to exhibit their creative and physical prowess to the gathered members of neighboring villages.

In the 1940s, the French Surrealist artist André Breton proclaimed the power of Melanesian art to unveil the primordial fears that “civilized” life masks.

Object Information

New Ireland
creation date
wood, cloth, fiber, pigment, lime, shells
19 x 8-1/4 x 11 in.
accession number
credit line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg
Public Domain
South Pacific Art

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