Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Length: 2.130 m (approx.)
Collected by Revd S. Macfarlane
Gift of Sir A.W. Franks
AOA Ethno +2489
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Mabuiag, Torres Strait Islands,
Late 19th century AD
Mabuiag is one of the many islands of the Torres Strait Island group, between Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. Throughout this area, crocodiles are both feared and respected. This enormous mask represents a life sized crocodile, being 7 feet long (about 2.13 metres). It is made of turtle-shell. The shell plates were heated in order to be shaped, and holes were drilled to enable the pieces to be sewn together with cord. In typical fashion this mask is decorated with pigment, cassowary feathers and seedcase rattles.
Masks like this were worn at ceremonies, including those to encourage crop fertility, the initiation of youths and mortuary rituals. The widespread adoption of Christianity in the late nineteenth century led to changes in practices. This mask was not used ceremonially, but was made for the Revd Samuel MacFarlane, a missionary who finished working in the Torres Strait in 1886. MacFarlane told the British Museum that the youth who made it copied it from the real animal placed before him - presumably dead - with a stick propping open its jaws.
There has been a recent revival of appreciation of Torres Strait Islanders' arts and crafts, and new masks (often called 'dance machines') are now being made.
L. Wilson, Kerkar Lu: contemporary artefacts of Torres Strait (Department of Education, Queensland, 1993)
D.R. Moore, Arts and crafts of Torres Straits (Princes Risborough, Shire Publications Ltd., 1989)
J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)