Name: Tatanua mask
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas ( ) USA
Materials: wood, paint, opercula, shell, and cloth
Reference code: 1975.8
Age: early 20th century
These men's dance masks, and the line dance in which they appear, are called tatanua, which may derive from the word tanua (spirit or soul). They are associated with the malagan festival in
. So great is the power of each mask that the dancer must remain absolutely quiet once it is lowered over his head. A supporting male chorus provides a voice for the masks. As part of the malagan celebration, the tatanua dance represents the renewed vitality of the living and their capabilities to survive and prosper. The masked dancers announce a return to order following the chaos in the village associated with death. Papua New Guinea
Though the masks are superficially similar in appearance, there are many variations reflecting the wide range of associations and meanings which they have.
The upper part consists of a cane framework held together with string and covered with barkcloth, or in later examples, European textiles. It is decorated to represent the hairstyle worn by young men as a mark of bereavement, in which the hair was partially shaved and coated with lime. Tatanua masks are decorated differently on each side of the crest, using feathers, wool, shells, short wooden sticks or seeds. One side is often
coated with lime. The crest is of yellow or reddish brown fibre. The face, normally carved from lime wood (Alstonia), is decorated with black, white and reddish brown pigment in an asymmetric design. Sometimes blue pigment is used to enhance the whiteness of washing. The straight mouth is usually open, showing teeth.
The tatanua mask is worn by men in ceremonies to honour the dead. In 1907 Richard Parkinson published a description of a ceremony that he witnessed on a visit to
New Ireland. The masked dancers performed, accompanied by drumming, wearing garlands of leaves and a leaf garment covering the lower body. Brenda Clay describes her observations of a performance by tatanua dancers in 1979. Men prepared the masks and the performance away from women. The masks are preserved between performances, to be rented out by one of the few remaining skilled carvers.
There are several categories of masks used in the malagan. The tatanua mask represents the spirits of the dead who are believed to attend the ceremonies and participate in the dances. Villagers clearly associated the different tatanua masks with specific deceased relatives and believed the mask wearers to be the reappearance of the spirit of that individual. In the past the tatanua ceremony was an exclusive male ritual complex and took place in the men's enclosure.
Some of the tatanuas are displays of the “ideal male”, that is, male power and capabilities; others are “portraits” of specific deceased. The placement of the shell eyes is an occasion for ceremony and it is at this moment that the spirit is believed to enter the mask. Tatanua dancers performed line dances rather than the individual dances that were typical for other kinds of masked dancers. Their movements imitated birds and/or snakes. The dancer, who wore a short grass costume, re-enacted the activities of an ancestor, sometimes in a comic manner. The crest represents the style of hair once worn by male ancestors. The tatanuas were not destroyed after the malagan festival, unlike most of the other art objects created for this ceremonial display.
While the individual elements that make up a particular piece can be identified, the meaning of the piece as a whole changes when the various elements are combined. The interpretation of the person who commissioned the piece may vary from that of other viewers and, indeed, there can be as many interpretations of the piece as there
are viewers. The elements used in each piece were chosen by the person who commissioned the piece and were dictated by his knowledge of the relative to be commemorated.
© Photos and text: Dallas Museum of Art and British Museum, Utah Museum of Fine Arts