During the 1950s, the 'timp' cult swept through the Mendi Valley in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, traded from the south through gift-exchange. Ritual knowledge was acquired by cult sponsors in exchange for valuables. The transactions took place over several months and were accompanied by complex and highly secretive ceremonial events.
'Timp' was performed to control malicious 'towmow' (ancestral ghosts believed to bring sickness). The innards and fat from slaughtered pigs were cooked in earth ovens then distributed to cult inductees. Blood was collected and offered to the ghosts. Spells were recited and the pork eaten, after which the bones were gathered and placed in a bundled 'corpse' that mimicked the bound bones of deceased kin. The 'corpse' was then taken from the cult house and paraded before spectators, escorted by men wearing 'timpsonk' masks. Finally, it was buried, as interning the bones weakened the 'towmow'.
[entry from Exhibition Guide for 'Melanesian art: redux', 2018, cat no 39]
Ceremonial clown mask
Timbsonk (cult mask)
mid 20th century
woven rattan, earth pigments, gold-lipped oyster shell (Pinctada maxima), bamboo, plant fibre, shells, burr seeds, machine-wove cotton fabric, plant fibre string, animal skin
woven mask 132.0 cm height; 48.0 to 52.0 cm diameter; figure 74.0 x 34.1 cm
© Mendi people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics
Where the work was made
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Melanesian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 20 Apr 1966–22 May 1966
Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 May 2014–10 Aug 2014
Melanesian art: redux, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 Nov 2018–17 Feb 2019
Referenced in 4 publications
Trevor Shearston, Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, 'Timpsonk (cult mask)', pg. 58-61, Sydney, 2014, 15, 59 (colour illus.), 60, 159. cat.no. 7
Natalie Wilson, Look, 'A myriad of artforms: rare and beautiful objects from the highlands of New Guinea', pg. 24-28, Sydney, May 2014, 27.
Aboriginal and Melanesian art, Sydney, 1973, 47, 49. cat.no. H3
Melanesian art, Sydney, 1966, 18. cat.no. 252