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The masked body

Masks were once found in many highlands cultures. They played an important role in sacred, ceremonial and magical rites, and were believed to have the power to conjure supernatural forces. Some masks were worn as part of secret male initiation rituals, while others were used in theatrical or educational performances. Many masks were intended to instil a feeling of terror in the spectator, while others induced merriment.

The body was also subject to concealment behind thick layers of mud or coloured ochres, or veiled with moss and other plant fibres. Occasionally masks obscured the entire body, such as those worn for the timp ceremony in the southern highlands.

Masks were often carved from the hardened shells of dried gourds, but other materials were also used. Teeth, tusks, tree resin, pig fat, ochres, mud, feathers, shells, seeds, and tangled clumps of burr or moss were ingeniously combined to create facial features. Ephemeral by nature, masks were generally discarded after fulfilling their performative role.

Focus work

Click the link to view the work in the collection, including an image and more information.

Dano people

Holosa (mud mask) early 1960s

The Asaro Mudmen are renowned for their gruesome mud masks (holosa), images of which have been used to promote fashion, cars and soft drinks worldwide.

The first holosa masks were constructed from bamboo, plantfibre and mud. They evolved from a tradition of concealing the face with white tree sap during covert attacks. Today the masks are moulded from solid clay and often adorned with commercial logos.

The most common origin myth of the holosa tells of a group of Komunive men from the Asaro Valley who fled their village after enemy attack, ran into a river and emerged covered in clay. Mistaking them for ghosts, their enemies fled. However, it is now recognised that the masks first appeared at the 1957 Goroka Show, invented by Komunive villagers for the ‘tribal finery’ contest.

Australian artist Sidney Nolan collected this holosa during his 1965 visit to Goroka with his wife, the writer Cynthia Nolan.

Issues for consideration

  • Find out more about Sidney Nolan’s trip to New Guinea. Why did he go, what did he do there and how did the trip influence his art-making? Research other Australian artists who have visited Papua New Guinea and discuss how this impacted their art-making practice.
  • Find contemporary images of the Asaro Mudmen and compare their masks to this one. Investigate how such images have been used commercially. Debate whether such advertising could be viewed as exploitation or positive promotion of culture.

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail