Helmet mask (tatanua)

From New Ireland province, Papua New Guinea, 19th century AD

This type of mask was made in north and central New Ireland. It is known as tatanua, after the dance in which it is used. Though the masks are superficially similar in appearance, there are many variations reflecting the wide range of associations and meanings which they have.

The upper part consists of a cane framework held together with string and covered with barkcloth, or in later examples, European textiles. It is decorated to represent the hairstyle worn by young men as a mark of bereavement, in which the hair was partially shaved and coated with lime. Tatanua masks are decorated differently on each side of the crest, using feathers, wool, shells, short wooden sticks or seeds. One side is often coated with lime. The crest is of yellow or reddish brown fibre. The face, normally carved from lime wood (Alstonia), is decorated with black, white and reddish brown pigment in an asymmetric design. Sometimes, as in this example, blue pigment is included - a European product (Reckitt's Blue) used to enhance the whiteness of washing. The eyes are set with painted snail shell (Turbo petholatus) opercula, the ear lobes are elongated and pierced, and the straight mouth is usually open, showing teeth.

The tatanua mask is worn by men in ceremonies to honour the dead. In 1907 Richard Parkinson published a description of a ceremony that he witnessed on a visit to New Ireland. The masked dancers performed, accompanied by drumming, wearing garlands of leaves and a leaf garment covering the lower body. Brenda Clay describes her observations of a performance by tatanua dancers in 1979. Men prepared the masks and the performance away from women. The masks are preserved between performances, to be rented out by one of the few remaining skilled carvers.

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More information


J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

B. Clay, 'A line of Tatanua' in Assemblage of spirits: idea an (New York and Minneapolis, George Braziller and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1987)


Height: 41.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1884,7-28.25


Collected by Hugh Hastings Romilly
Gift of the Duke of Bedford


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