New Guinea Masks

Papua New Guinea Masks come in various types. Types vary mainly depending on the region/tribe they come from. This article is to help the reader identify where in New Guinea their tribal mask is from by giving examples and pictures of the different types.

The best known Papua New Guinea mask come from the Sepik River which is in a separate article.

I Buy old New Guinea masks. If you have one to sell or if you want to know how much a mask is worth, please contact me. I would love to see it.



New Guinea Masks general information

Many New Guinea Masks are to empower objects. They were to empower sacred flutes canoes, the HausMan, as lucky amulets and even yams. Other masks were not made to wear directly on the head but were part of a larger assemblage. Masks that people wear are normally referred to as dance masks.

Many masks are wooden but there are others made from tree bark over a rattan frame. Not all areas of Papua New Guinea made masks

Types of Papua New Guinea Tribal masks vary from very small Amulet masks only a few centimeters, to huge Baining masks over 10 meters tall.

In Papua New Guinea it is only men who wear or make masks and they must be an initiate in that cult. Masks are not used by women. It is Tabboo for women to see or touch masks other than during a ceremony.

Masks are the spirits and ancestral deities. When worn the initiate becomes the spirit / tumbuwan the mask represents. Masks are still used today in New Guinea and dance during ceremonial occasions.

The following is a visual guide on types of New Guinea Masks but due to the huge variety throughout the country is not inclusive. It is better to think of this a brief introduction to this fascinating group of oceanic art forms.

If you have an old mask you think is from New Guinea, feel free to send me some images.

New Guinea Masks by Area

Baining Mask

Baining masks are some of the Largest masks in the world and made from tapa over a rattan frame. They usually have extremely large distinctive circular eyes.

Despite their size, they are not that uncommon. Many cruiseliners stopped in Rabaul in the 1970’s and watched the Baining fire dance. After the performance, some cruise passengers bought the masks back as souvenirs.

Sulka Masks

Masks from the Sulka or Suluka people in East new Britain made of pith finely sewn onto a cane frame. They are a distinctive pink color. The masks come in two main sizes. Large masks have an elaborate umbrella-type structure on the top. These masks are rare and highly collectible.

Masks from Pomio are like Sulk masks but less flamboyant.

Papuan Gulf Masks

Papuan Gulf masks made from tapa cloth over a cane frame come from the region between Kerema and Orokolo. They were for a complex dance cycle.

Other Papuan Gulf masks made from woven cane come from West of Orokolo through to Kikori.

Tapa masks are in general more collectible. They tend to be brighter and more dynamic.

New Guinea Masks

Huon Gulf

Huon Gulf tribal masks come in two main types. The ones made from wood Have very distinctive ears. They are always done with openwork to reflect the importance of ear piercing as part of initiation in this area. The eye slits are usually below the carved eyes.

Tapa masks are tapa over a cane infrastructure. The nose and ears from carved from soft woods

Malangan Masks

Malangan tribal masks come from the Northern Part of New Ireland and carved from a lightwood. Normally they are very intricate and show very high degrees of workmanship.

Traditionally they were burnt or left to rot after a Malangan Ceremony.

There is a huge variety of different styles of malangan masks. These masks constructed from a variety of different materials

Astrolabe Bay masks

These masks are wooden and very rare. Stylistically similar to Huon Gulf wooden masks. Astrolabe bay was an early German settlement and mask ceased being made over 100 years ago.

They are the most sort after and collectible New Guinea mask.

Huon Gulf masks tend to have less variation in forms.

Image; Michael Hamson Oceanic Art

Lorr Masks

Lorr masks come from Southern New Ireland and East New Britain

The faceplates are wooden and the support structure cane. the hair is normally made of coconut fibre.

On older masks, it is quite often the wooden favce plate that survives

Highlands Masks

The New Guinea highland, in general, have very few masks. The masks they do have though tend not to be made from wood. Instead they use materials like cane gourd and pandanus leaves.

They also make a mask from half a gourd. These are used to get rid of leprosy  and are often painted yellow and red.

Image; Michael Hamson Oceanic Art

Tantanua Masks

Tantanua masks from New Ireland have an easily recognized mohawk hairstyle. They usually have a lightwood faceplate and fiber top.

They are often incorrectly referred to as malangan masks. Unlike Malangan masks, Tantanua are not destroyed after the ceremony.

They are one of the visually most dynamic masks from New Guinea and are very collectable.

Sepik Masks

Masks from the Sepik / Ramu Region in Papua New Guinea just about outnumber masks from all other Regions.

They deserve an article for themselves. please feel free to read my article Sepik masks.

Tanga Mask

Tanga tribal Masks made of tapa over a cane structure. Although they tend to be coarsely made their forms are some of the wildest in all of Oceanic Art.

Nissan Island Mask

New Guinea Masks from Nissan island made from tapa over the top of a cane framework.

They are quite rare and can be considered culturally as Solomon island Art

New Guinea Masks

I hope you can appreciate the vast variety of New Guinea tribal masks. New Guinea is the most prolific mask-producing region of the World. As Art, they are extremely expressive and come in a vast variety of sizes forms and functions. It is a great pity that the majority of people who visit New guinea only get to see the modern Middle Sepik Mask produced for sale to tourists. Most visitors miss the fantastic variety of other tribal masks this diverse country has to offer.


If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy New Guinea War Clubs and Tribal headrests.


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