UNKNOWN; Kavat mask
Looming out of the dark forest into the bright, fire-lit space of a Baining men’s ceremony, the large, stark white faces of kavat masks are impressive, if not a little daunting. Large concentric eyes, worked in red and black ink or ochre, stare at onlookers as this ‘spirit’ figure moves about the ceremonial ground, dashing through a blazing fire or wrestling with snakes. The awe and fear elicited by the ceremonies in which kavat masks are used is significant, as the audience, and the men chosen to take on a particular spirit form, are transported into a heightened emotional state.
Like many cultures, the Baining people of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea have a pantheon of spirits with whom they seek to maintain positive relationships. Each kavat mask exhibits features associated with a particular forest or ancestral spirit, and is decorated with patterns that the creators have the permission to reproduce. Customarily created by men in strict isolation, the masks are not believed to represent particular spirits but rather to provide a conduit for that spirit’s manifestation. They are constructed from soft, handbeaten bark cloth, often described as a ‘paper skin’, and although the spirit departs at the end of the ceremony, its potent presence is still held by the mask; as a result, masks are taken to a special secure enclosure and hidden, or they are destroyed.
Augmenting the Gallery’s growing collection of Baining masks — recently featured in the Gallery’s ‘Paperskin: Barkcloth across the Pacific’ exhibition in 2009 and ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ in 2012 — is a work created for a ceremony that welcomed Australian tour operator Geoff Murphy and his family to the Baining area in the early 1990s. A number of the kavat masks worn in the ceremony were destroyed, but this mask was one of two given to the Murphy family, in the hope of cementing a relationship that would see tourists visiting the village to attend its spectacular fire ceremonies. A distinctive feature of the mask is the inclusion of the Australian coat of arms, copied from a 50-cent coin, located centrally on its forehead. Only the artists can really know what this inclusion represents, or how this mask is distinguished from the other, supposedly more customary, masks destroyed at the end of the ceremony.
What we do know is that the Baining, like many of the different cultural groups in East New Britain, are actively seeking to engage with the cash economies first introduced to the region during German and Australian colonial occupation in the twentieth century. Since independence was secured by Papua New Guinea in 1975, a tremendous move towards modernisation has taken place, alongside a flourishing of the assertion and significance of kastom (customary law, religion and government) across the country. While it differs for each of the more than 700 cultural groups in the country, kastom often incorporates external ideas and values that resonate within the community, or which they have felt compelled to adopt. These outside ideas, values and motifs are subsequently reflected in material culture.
Today, kavat masks continue to be created by the Baining as a means of maintaining a positive relationship with important forest and ancestral spirits, but they are also created to develop relationships with other ‘beings' or 'ideas’ deemed beneficial to the community. They are worn in ceremonies staged for tourists at national festivals and at times of celebration, as well as being an important part of more traditional initiation ceremonies. In contemporary Baining society, with its increasing links to the wider world, the kavat mask continues to act as a conduit, drawing what are seen as external and potentially dangerous powers into meaningful dialogue with the community. With their iconic sculptural forms, bold patterning and soft, textured skins, masks like this one, generously gifted to the Gallery by the Murphy family, still have the power to capture the eye, to induce awe and to generate respect: a respect for the resilience of culture and its continued affirmation through the creation of meaningful objects of art.
Ruth McDougall, Artlines 3-2013, p.40.