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Pacific art

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Barkcloth funerary mask cover

mid 20th century


Nakanai people

Papua New Guinea


The Nakanai people live on the island of New Britain, located off the east coast of the island of New Guinea. Food is grown in the gardens, hunted in forests and caught from the sea. Villages are made up of small hamlets with a number of family dwellings and a men's house. In the past, there was contact and trade between other cultural groups around the island, however direct European influence arrived late to the Nakanai, with Christian missions established as late as the 1920s. Missionary influence had lasting effects on the Nakanai, including the abandonment of certain customary rituals.

The most important festival celebrated by the Nakanai was held to honour the dead. Several years after the initial burial of a man, once enough pigs had been reared and gardens planted and cultivated, a three-day event was held. Carefully prepared costumes were made from barkcloth painted with natural black, white, red, yellow and blue pigments, or coloured chalks, pencils and oils from mission stores. The costumes – made and worn only by men – consisted of a cape hung from the shoulders down the back and a mask. Masks were constructed from barkcloth, stretched and stitched over a cane frame. According to Edward Tull, a plantation manager who photographed the last known funeral in which barkcloth capes and masks were used in 1952, the costumed men then carried the barkcloth shrouded body to a final burial site. The shrouds, capes and masks were often placed in the grave.

This barkcloth mask cover was removed from its cane frame, however holes – through which plant fibre string was threaded to attach it to a support – still remain. The design on the barkcloth shows a face with eyes, nose and a mouth. It resembles images used on shields, canoes and the skin known as 'tataro', which often represent spirits.


Place where the work was made

New Britain Papua New Guinea

Cultural origin

Nakanai people


mid 20th century

Media category

Ceremonial object

Materials used

barkcloth, red, yellow, black and white pigments


48.0 x 38.0 cm


Purchased with funds provided by the Florence Turner Blake Bequest and the Patricia Lucille Bernard Bequest 2016


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Nakanai people

Works in the collection