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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Papuan Gulf Masks, Papua New Guinea

[Kanipu in profile: 11k]

Mask costumes and figures made of cane framework covered with basket wickerwork or bark cloth (tapa) were central to many Papua Gulf ceremonies. Papuan Gulf longhouses shared the elongated cone or bisected cone construction of the figures and masks.

Figure 1: Kanipu mask with plaited basketry body. Appliqued cane strips mark off the red and white design areas. A seed rattle dangles from chin.

Figure 2: Keveke mask with long plaited basketry face, design areas outlined with cane applique.

[Keveke with oval plaited basket face: 12k]


Gulf villagers lived in communal longhouses in 1845 at the first recorded European landing by a party from the HMS Fly. These were up to 30 feet wide (10 meters), 30-40 feet high (10-12 meters) and hundreds of feet long.

The house shape resembled a woven pig. Kiwai Island people say that the spirit of the first man to die went ahead of the people to plant gardens. Then he transformed himself into an giant pig, split himself open and spread out his sides to make a house for them.

The men also built enormous ceremonial longhouses. At Kiwai, the jungle end was used by dancers for their ceremonial entries and the shore end was considered to be pointing to the land of the dead.

The power of a house was so strong that the old couple who agree to perform the necessary magic ceremonies during construction of a new one died after its completion. A human head had to be taken and knocked against the main post as the first loud sound heard in the building.

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Figure 3: Wickerwork masks (kanipu or orihobo), probably from Urama Island. They are over 6 feet (2 meters) tall.

[2 wickerwork full body masks with outstretched arms: 32k]

Basketry figures:

In the Purari Delta, giant wickerwork pig-like figures called kaiaimunu lived in the back of the men's house. Every male was initiated into their cult. A young boy was lifted onto his group's old kaiaimunu, collapsing it. The initiates helped their uncles weave new ones.

The boy sits inside his kaiemunu, and helps to weave it. His uncle pokes a cane strip through to him, and he pokes it back through the proper place (from F. E. Williams, Papua 1922-1943).

All ceremonies ended with a head-hunting raid for a human offering. The head or body of the victim was first fed to a kaiaimunu and the next day to anyone who wanted to eat some of it.

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[Wickerwork kanipu with full grass skirt: 17k]

Round masks: kanipu, avoko

Figure 4: Kanipu mask, wickerwork painted with white and red clay.

Figure 5: Kanipu mask, basketry base coated with a heavy layer of clay.

[Kanipu with terra cotta clay layer over wickerwork frame: 11k]

Kanipu masks have rounded heads covered with basketry or bark cloth (tapa) and long open jaws. They appeared in the central delta areas to enforce a tabu on coconuts for use in ceremonies. Some were worn by young boys during initiations.

Basket masks with similar shapes, including ones with long noses instead of jaws, occur in other parts of the Gulf. They may represent bush spirits.(See photo of a kanipu made with tapa cloth in Papuan Gulf Map.)

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Conical bark cloth masks: eharo, kovave

[Conical eharo mask made of tapa cloth with a feather stick arc headdress radiating from the top: 17k]

Figure 6: Eharo mask from the Elema area. Photo courtesy of a private collection.

Eharo may have originally represented bush spirits. They appeared during the Hevehe ceremony in Orokolo Bay. The conical masks were topped with totemic figures like hornbills which were often humorous. After contact, tops included jokes on European culture like kerosene lanterns. They were called "playthings" or "things of gladness."(2)

Kovave and harisu are said to be bush or river spirits. Harisu gave advice to the magicians on hunting and fishing. Kovave live in trees and were summoned into a Elema village to initiate the boys. The conical kovave bark cloth masks were made in the men's house. They were similar in shape to the eharo masks.

[Tapa cloth dome-shaped helmet with crest: 10k]

Kovave masks are put on young initiates in an ambush. Next, they are taken to a clearing where their maternal uncles trim the bark fibers to a suitable length. They then race in beach contests against rival unmasked men from another village (from F. E. Williams, Papua 1922-1943).

They patrol the beach for a month, both fearsome and comical, and are presented with pigs to kill with their bows and arrows. At the end, the kovave disappear back into the bush and their masks are burned.

Figure 7: Bark cloth (tapa) helmet from the eastern Gulf with characteristic triangle detailing.

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Tall oval masks: keveke, hevehe, semese

[Keveke with red and white curvilinear spiral designs incised in long oval wood face: 11k]

Tall oval masks occur from Urama Island east into the Elema area. They may have been derived from sacred bull-roarers or from gope boards. Different tribes have their own interpretations. Some were warriors. Others represented ancestor spirits to be offered gifts.

Figure 8: Keveke mask with wood face, incised designs and full length grass skirt.

Figure 9: Keveke style mask with bark cloth (tapa) face.

[Keveke with broad oval black central face surrounded by red/white design: 15k]

In Orokolo Bay they are sea spirits (ma-hevehe). The masks were up to 20 feet (7 meters) tall. The cycle called Hevehe lasted 10 to 20 years. The last of these ceremonies was recorded by F. E. Williams in the 1930's.

It began with the construction of a men's ceremonial longhouse (eravo). Then at night, a ma-hevehe spirit brought two of his daughters up from the sea to leave in care of the men's groups.

Over the months, the ma-hevehe repeated his visits and the groups construct more named pairs of hevehe dance masks to represent all the daughters. The masks were kept hidden. When they were finished, a new door was made in the longhouse.

[Detail of wood keveke face: 25k]

Next, the playful eharo conical-masked figures appeared. They danced in 7 or more sets. Long ribbons of bark cloth fluttered from the bottom edges as they danced.

Figure 10: Keveke mask detail showing mouth made from a coconut.

Finally, after the many years of preparation, the daughters of the ma-hevehe were ready to emerge. In early morning before light, the sacred shell trumpet sounded. The ma-hevehe came up from the sea with drums for his children.

The drums were played in the men's house for several hours. Then in the silver light of morning, the first of the hevehe appeared in the open door of the longhouse. She paused. As the drums sounded again, she come down the gangway into the village, followed by another and another - 120 altogether.

The hevehe danced on and off all day for one month accompanied by kinswomen. The last dance was on the beach. Then 2 by 2, the hevehe returned to the long house. They were thanked, striped of their decorations, blessed and taken out to be ritually shot to death and burned in bush.

" Now I am about to burn you. Look kindly on the men of my eravo when they hunt, let not the arrow stick in the ground but in the eye of the pig. I do no harm to you. Constantly from long ago I have fed and fostered you. Do not be angry with us." February 1932 as told to F. E. Williams (2)

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Map of the Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea

[Map of the Gulf of Papua, PNG: 10k]

More articles/photos of NEW GUINEA MASKS:

Middle Sepik River | Angoram | Kambaramba | Tambanum | Hunstein | Imbando and Taway | Mumeri | Blackwater River | Lower Ramu River | Middle Ramu River | basket yam masks | wooden yam masks | Baining | Sulka | Tolai dukduk | Malagan | Papuan Gulf | Gogodala | String and Things | Skin as Ground... | more INDONESIAN MASKS: Bali and Java | Dyak

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0