Masks of the World: Oceania

Hi Everybody! Today we will explore the final of our series on Masks, while exploring a small sample of those from Oceania.

Oceania is a geographic region that includes Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Covering a third of the earth, the Pacific is home to vibrant and diverse cultures that speak a quarter of the world’s languages, and include some of the oldest continuous human cultures. Melanesia and New Guinea have particularly rich culture of mask ceremonies and traditions. Please be sure to follow the links if you want to explore further. I have included video links as well as Q+A and a Craft Activity at the bottom.

Melanesia Malanggan Mask

The Malanggan Mask, is commonly used at funeral rites, which both bid farewell to the dead and celebrate the vibrancy of the living. The masks are one of the main ritual objects that might be used to represent the features of the deceased, both to honor them and to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world. Sometimes they were used to force the spirit of the newly dead to depart for the spirit world. Masks were also made to protect the deceased by frightening away malevolent spirits.  The masks are made to be used on a single occasion and then destroyed. Most of these masks are made from wood. Organic material like human hair, leaves, and some paint are added. 

Source: Google Arts & Culture

Malanggan Mask, Unknown, 19th century, From the collection of: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid

To explore further about Melanesian Masks, check out the collection online at

Watch this video of a Malagan Tatanua Mask Dance:

New Caledonia Mourning Mask

This mask from New Caledonia is said to represent a chief. It is adorned with hair, probably from the men mourning the chief’s death. In the north of New Caledonia, a chief’s mourners wore masks such as this during his mortuary ceremony. The performer wore the mask high—looking out from the mask’s mouth, rather than the eyes—covered with a cloak made of black feathers. He was supposed to hit out at the assembled people with clubs. The symbolism of the mask made connections with the underwater world of the dead and its acting performance was supposed to underline the chief’s abiding power. The face of this mask is of carved wood, stained black. The eyes are generally closed—the wearer would see through the open mouth. The nose is typically beak-like. The mask is topped with human hair, also used to form the beard. The hair of male mourners was used for this; they grew it long, and cut it after the period of mourning. At the back of the head is a band of plaited vegetable fiber, similar in construction to the hat worn by men of high rank. A long cloak of black pigeon feathers, probably attached to netting, would have hung from this, covering the body of the wearer. Made from wood, human hair, bamboo, barkcloth, vegetable fiber, and feathers.

Source: Google Arts & Culture

Mask, 1853/1853, From the collection of: British Museum

Papua New Guinea Susu Mask

Susu masks are worn by Sulka men during important ceremonies, such as initiations, marriages and funerals. The masks represent spirits and are destroyed following the ritual. This example has elongated earlobes representing initiated men and blackened teeth symbolizing those of young male initiates. Masks are made in secrecy by men, out of the sight of women. The Susu mask is made from Pith, wood, rattan, dried leaves, feathers, natural dyes, and pollen.

Baining Night/Fire Dance Mask

Fire Dance Mask Representing Spirit of a Leaf (Kavat), early 20th century. Papua New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, New Britain, Gazelle Peninsula.

This mask is made from bamboo, bark cloth, and paint. Fire dances can be carried out for many reasons, the most common of which now is for tourists. Originally a dance would celebrate a birth, mark a new harvest, remember the recently deceased or be done for initiation purposes. Such an event may feature upwards of 30 masks, each acted by men who take turns parading through a designated dance ground. An important part of the ceremony is an orchestra of men playing a variety of percussion instruments. As the tempo of the music increases over time, the two smaller varieties, the lingan and the kavat will briefly dance in or jump through a large, central bonfire. Evidence of this can be seen on the underside of many of the masks in this post which are blackened by smoke. Though the enormous vungvung are well balanced enough that they can be worn by one person, they tend to avoid the fire altogether and are instead led around by the smaller masks. Their defining feature, a large bamboo pole through their mouth, doubles as trumpets from which they can make distinctive sounds. Dances last until daybreak when members of the orchestra finally chase the masks out of the dance grounds.

Source: Bowers Museum

New Guinea has a enormous variety of masks and ceremonial traditions, You can read a bit more about it at this article on the New Guinea National Mask Festival

Duk Duk is a secret society part of the traditional culture of the Tolai people of Papua New Guinea.The society has religious and political as well as social objectives. It represents a form of law and order through its presiding spirits. In ritual dances, members of the society invoke the male spirit duk duk and female spirit tubuan depending on which mask the dancer wears. The dancers are always male despite the fact that some are performing the role of female spirits. Women and children were forbidden to look at these figures.Both types of mask are cone-shaped and are constructed of cane and fibre, with short, bushy capes of leaves. Traditionally the duk duk was taller than the tubuan and was faceless. The tubuan had circular eyes and a crescent-shaped mouth painted on a dark background. In addition to the mask, leaves cover the torso of the dancers so that only their legs are visible.

In the past, with the absence of judges and courts, Duk-Duk acted as law enforcers. They collected fines in the form of strings of shell money from law offenders and arranged all tribal matters. Duk-Duk’s judgment and actions were considered unquestionable. With their unlimited power, they were allowed to resort to some extreme measures such as burning down houses of those refusing to pay fines. Even in today’s modern world, Duk-Duk still reinforce law and order, and they are highly respected in the Tolai society. (Source: Wikipedia)

All of a sudden, Tolai men in red laplap start the ritual whipping of Duk-Duk. The cracking sounds of whips make the crowd flinch with every strike. This ritual demonstrates Tolai men’s ability to control the wild and feared Tumbuan showing their power and ensure them respect.


Asaro Mud Men Masks, Papua New Guinea

The Asaro Mud Men are globally known for their clay masks with fearsome facial expressions, and have become a symbol of regional and national identity, plus a premier international tourist attraction for Papua New Guinea.

Legend is that they were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the Asaro River. They waited until dusk before attempting to escape. The enemy saw them rise from the muddy banks covered in mud and thought they were spirits. Most tribes in Papua New Guinea are very afraid of spirits, so the enemy fled in fear, and the Asaro escaped.

They then went into the village to see what had happened, not knowing the enemy tribesmen were still there. The enemy were so terrified they ran back to their village and held a special ceremony to ward off the spirits.

The mudmen could not cover their faces because legends say that the people of Papua New Guinea thought that the mud from the Asaro river was poisonous. So instead of covering their faces with this alleged poison, they made masks from pebbles that they heated and water from the waterfall.

The masks have unusual designs, such as long or very short ears either going down to the chin or sticking up at the top, long joined eyebrows attached to the top of the ears, horns and sideways mouths.

Watch a video of the Mud Men performance here:

Source: Australian Museum

Micronesia Mortlock Island Ancestor Mask

Masks are rare in Micronesia – traditionally they are only found in the Mortlock group of islands (Caroline Islands). This typical example is made of breadfruit wood painted white using lime and black using soot. The mask has narrow eye-slits, and a plaited coconut fibre cord for securing it to the wearer’s head. Such masks represented an ancestor. They were used as ornaments in the ceremonial house and sometimes in boat houses. The ceremonial house was the location of performances by members of a secret society, in which the god of wind was appeased to protect the breadfruit crops from hurricanes and storms. The ceremony took place in March or April, and included dancing and feasting. (Source: The British Museum)

Maori Mask, New Zealand

Maori masks were carved from one piece of light softwood by Maoris to honor their ancestors. The lines on the mask mirror Maori tattoos which traditionally Maori warriors had on their faces to make them look fierce. The masks often had beads or the like inserted in the eye sockets.

This large, figuratively decorated koruru or parata (gable mask) was carved with metal chisels, probably in the mid to late 19th century. The proportions of the face are exaggerated, with a large, pronounced forehead, broad nose, expansive eyelids over small ovoid eyes, and tiny ears. The mouth suggests a smile and the expression is that of a young, male face. Part of his moko (Maori customary tattoo) above the top lip is incomplete or missing.

Koruru (Gable) Mask, New Zealand Maori

This koruru is unusual because it is carved figuratively. There is a generally accepted convention that customary carving on whare tupuna were usually abstract representations. This particular koruru breaks with that custom. Koruru are architectural features on large whare tupuna or wharenui (meeting houses) that join the two front facing maihi (barge boards) at the top apex. A koruru’s face is also the face of the represented tupuna (ancestor) embodied in the carved constructed form of the whare tupuna.

Vanuatu Helmet mask 

This comes from southern Malakula Island in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) east of Australia. Many Vanuatu peoples have complex men’s secret societies, which involve a series of ritual “grades” through which individuals pass, by means of initiation rites, festivals, and pig sacrifices, in order to achieve increasing religious and social status. The two most prominent grade societies in southern Malakula are Nimangki and Nalawan. Grade rituals in each of these societies involve the creation of brightly painted figures and masks depicting powerful spirits and other supernatural beings. This mask represents the female cannibal giant Nevinbumbaan, whose son, Ambat Malondr, sits on her shoulders. Nevinbumbaan is credited with the creation of the men’s Nimangki society; this mask is made and worn at various stages in the ceremonial cycle.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mabuiag Island Turtle Shell Mask

The unique turtle-shell masks of the Torres Strait Islands that lie betweenAustralia and New Guinea are among the most striking works of Oceanic art. Attributed to Mabuiag Island, this work displays the composite human and animal imagery typical of western Torres Strait masks.

Turtle-shell masks in the Western Torres Strait reportedly were used during funerary ceremonies and increase rites, designed to ensure bountiful harvests and an abundance of fish and game. The ceremonies often involved performances in which senior men, wearing the masks and rustling costumes of grass, reenacted events from the lives of culture-heroes, which were drawn from oral tradition. Worn over the head like a helmet, this work depicts a human face, possibly representing once such culture-hero. It is surmounted by a frigate bird, perhaps representing his personal totem.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wooden Mask, Saibai Island Torres Strait (Northern Islands, Australia): 1870

This mask is made of wood, human hair, shell, seedpod, fiber, pigment, melo shell and coix seeds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have the oldest continuous culture in the world, with a legacy of tens of thousands of years. Their art is often referred to as the oldest in human history. Masks in this style are called “mawa,” meaning “face,” and are believed to represent mythical heroes whose appearances signal important events and rites of passage. The “mawa” ceremony was held to celebrate the ripening of fruits and other crops around the month of September. The masks were carved from wood and distinct because they do not have sight apertures for the wearer, meaning that they were likely worn on the top of the head by a dancer wearing a costume of coconut leaves. They could also have been used as a kind of architectural ornament.

Image Source: Toledo Museum of Art

A Modern Take of traditional Masks at the National Museum of Australia:

The 2.3-metre high Sugu Mawa artwork created in 2011 by Alick Tipoti is a powerful expression of the artist’s Torres Strait Islander heritage and the story of the Octopus Clan. Sugu means ‘octopus’ and Mawa means ‘mask’ in Tipoti’s Western Torres Strait language of Kala Lagaw Ya. The artwork relates to a traditional dance belonging to the Octopus Clan.


If you were to make your own club or “secret society” what kind of rituals and mask would you have? Can you draw it?

What kind of mask would represent Saturday Club? Can you draw it too?

If you were to make a mask as an architectural element like the Maoris, to hang up and protect your home, what would it look like? Would it be scary?


Here is a good art resource for exploring the masks of New Guinea further:


Learn a Haka: While this is not a masked dance, it is a traditional warrior dance from the Maori culture of New Zealand (now also performed by the rugby team the All-Blacks) and can certainly help air some frustrations and make you feel energized:


I’m not sure how “authentic” this is, but it looks beautiful and you can follow this tutorial from Crayola on how to make an aboriginal mask with their Model Magic Presto dots:

Here is a cool instruction page for how to make Aboriginal Inspired Art (which you could then paint on paper, a stone, a leaf, your body…) Use the symbols to create a storyline:

And here is an instructional page for Aboriginal Inspired “Bark” paintings:

On the same site

Aboriginal inspirited yarn paintings:

And Aboriginal inspired fibre animal sculptures:

Here is a Hawaiian tiki mask drawing tutorial:

And How to Draw a Tiki:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s