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Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island

Video transcript

we're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a fabulous mask that was made by people who lived on an island in the Torres Strait this is a body of water between New Guinea and Australia that has hundreds of islands most of which are uninhabited this is from a particular island called the mabui AG island what we have here is a turtle Shaw mask divided into three registers in the bottom we have a human face above it the face and body of a bird and above that feathers now it is only in the Torres Strait that we find masks made out of this very precious material of turtle shell in this particular case we have a frigate bird depicted and we have a face that has raffia attached to it as though it were hair and in fact in other examples it really is human hair what I notice is that we have a lot of pieces that have been stitched together the piece that forms the face three decorative pieces that surround that we have a piece underneath another piece in the back and then the bird itself is made up of many pieces of turtle shell and in addition to turtle show we also have feathers and shell and raffia that add to the texture and the materiality of this piece and of course this would only have been one part of an elaborate costume used in a masquerade it would have been seen in motion in front of an audience when it was actually used music those feathers on the top moving in the wind and the raffia that we see for the hair also moving so we're seeing it in a very static way which is very unnatural and it's likely the dancer was making the gestures of a bird so who's represented here art historians conjecture that perhaps this is a face of a hero someone who lived the path but who did supernatural deeds he's being remembered here it could also be an ancestor it could be an older person because we have this lovely lattice work around the sides of the face and the bottom which suggests a beard somebody important in your lineage who you would want to honor through this mask and perhaps that person was associated with the frigatebird on the top of the mask or perhaps the frigate bird was associated in some way with the wearer of the mask and in that sense the bird could be seen as a totem that is a mythological creature that connected to a particular lineage or a family maybe it was an animal that they didn't hunt maybe it was an animal that they regarded as unique and special and so this mask likely connected the wearer connected the culture to supernatural to something beyond the physical world because we have to ask ourselves why the artist created it why did they spend so much time carving this putting it together we know turtle show was actively traded and that European sailors in particular were interested in collecting tortoiseshell in the early 1800s we know that by the late 1800s the presence of missionaries had made this practice almost obsolete in fact they asked the Torres Strait Islanders to burn their masts to destroy them so the only examples that we have today are in collections that anthropologists ethnographers sailors missionaries folks that were Outsiders in the Torres Straits might have collected in hand were not sure whether this dates to the late 19th century after this area had been Christianized and so we're not sure if this is an object that was made for the people themselves or was made to be exported for tourists and collectors because there are accounts of turtle shell masks in the Torres Straits we assume that these were fairly important they have a long history a long tradition and we know from another account in the 1930s that they were kept in special houses of stone so it suggests that they were items that had prestige and I would love to know more about those circular pieces on the wings they almost look like propellers the whole sculpture this whole mask gives me a feeling of flight and of upward movement and while we may not be completely satisfied with understanding the cultural context of this piece we can actually really appreciate it formally in the space you
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