British Museum collections, £12.99
Length: 55.000 inches
Gift of Sir Henry Evans James
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Malakula Island,
Late 19th / early 20th century AD
This headdress comes from the southern part of the island of Malakula, one of the group of islands in the south-western Pacific Ocean that form Vanuatu. It is worn by men in dances that form part of a cycle of rituals which are linked to the achievement of status and power within the community. The dances are also linked to the world of the spirits, a parallel world which accessible to people in a number of ways. The seated figure surmounting the mask represents a character from one of the key histories connected with the rites. The rituals are marked by the control of knowledge: by participating in them men gain greater and greater access to specialized information.
Today rituals such as these are once again growing in importance in southern Malakula, after a period when they were much frowned upon within the community. Headdresses such as this are again being made.
This example is constructed on a bamboo frame wrapped with a leaf covering, which is then plastered with a vegetal paste (the whole resembling papier mâché), and subsequently painted. The boars' tusks inserted in the figure's mouth are markers of status and significance.