British Museum collections, £12.99
Height: 69.000 cm
Collected by Revd S. MacFarlane
Gift of A.W. Franks
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Saibai Island, Torres Strait Islands,
Probably 19th century AD
Torres Strait Islanders make masks from wood, representing human faces, or turtle-shell, representing human faces or animals. The people of the western island of Saibai clearly preferred to use wood; though they certainly had access to turtle-shell, it is not clear whether they ever used it to make masks.
Torres Strait Islanders used masks in funerary and initiation ceremonies (though this was not the case in Saibai), as well as in ceremonies relating to food crops. This type of human face mask was used in the mawa ceremony, held around September, to celebrate the ripening and harvesting of the ubar fruit, a variety of wild plum. The participant used his teeth to hold the mask on, gripping a horizontal wooden stick passed through the back of the mask. He also wore a costume of coconut leaves.
The mask is almost certainly made from kaukii wood (Mimusops Browniana). The face is characteristically elongated with open long ears, and a pointed nose. It is carved in low relief, and decorated with black, white and red pigment. The eyes are made of shell, and the hair and eyebrows are of vegetable fibre. It is usual for the mouth to be open, sometimes showing the teeth.
This mask was acquired by The British Museum in 1885. Later examples of these masks often incorporate materials acquired from European visitors, such as metal, and woollen and cotton textiles.
A.C Haddon (ed.), Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Cambridge University Press ()
D.R. Moore, Arts and crafts of Torres Strait (Princes Risborough, Shire Publications Ltd., 1989)
J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
D.F. Fraser, Torres Straits sculpture: a study in Oceanic primitive art (New York and London, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978)