09. The Pacific, Art & Humanities

#218. Buk (mask). Torres Strait. Mid- to late 19th century CE. Turtle shell, wood, fiber, feathers, and shell.

#218. Buk (mask). Torres Strait. Mid- to late 19th century CE. Turtle shell, wood, fiber, feathers, and shell.

Art Historical Background

The buk mask comes from the Mabuiag Island located in the Torres Strait, which is between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Torrest Strait has a series of very small islands, many of which are uninhabited. And this chain is engulfed in the larger Pacific region of Melanesia, named by the French explorer Jules Dumont D’Urville for the dark skin of the inhabitants. They typically live in smaller societies linked via trade and are animists (worship spirits) mixed with ancestor worship. This last part is related to a theory about the content, symbolism, of the mask.

There were two turtleshell masks which were said to have been kept…in a house built of small stones (the only erection of the kind known to me)…

A.C. Haddon, British anthropologist and ethnologist

This mask has two major sections: the lower humanoid part and a “hat” on top that is bird-shaped with feathers coming out the top. The face is striking: two very close-set white shell eyes stare straight at you, between them is an elongated pointed nose ending in an open mouth with stylized teeth (like the grill of a car). The face is attached to a helmet-shaped object (also made of turtle shell) and has patterned plates framing the face on the side. Below the face is a similar patterned shell in roughly a coat-of-arms shape.

Turtle shell, is often used in funerary rituals and rite for a healthy harvest and plentiful game. It may seem strange to us today to connect these things but cultures all throughout the world have understood the link between life and death. Some cultural theories on who the mask depicts is that it could be a mythological hero or a family ancestor associated with the frigate bird.

The mask is too small to fit over the head, therefore it probably sat on top of the wearer’s head. The ceremonies included dancing of senior men with full costume of grasses (also seen with the raffia on the back of the buk mask like hair). This piece is not meant to be static, set on a platform in a museum case; when worn and “danced,” the wings of the frigate bird move as if in flight.

Like many African and Pacific art pieces, the materials used here come from the surrounding landscape and are particular to that environment. Additionally, the art was made of natural materials, subject to quick deterioration if not preserved carefully. In addition to the natural reasons these pieces would not survive, Christian missionaries sadly had the indigenous peoples burn these masks, so very few survive today.


Next time: #219. Hiapo (tapa). Niue. c. 1850–1900 CE. Tapa or bark cloth, freehand painting.

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