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Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island

The video explores a unique turtle shell mask from Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait. The mask, featuring a human face, bird body, and feathers, is a significant cultural artifact. It's believed to represent a hero or ancestor and may connect the wearer to the supernatural. The mask's creation and use reveal insights into the island's rich history and traditions.

Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island, mid to late 19th century,turtle shell, wood, cassowary feathers, fiber, resin, shell, paint, 21 1/2 inches high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(Jazzy piano music) - [Beth] 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 Mabuiag Island. - [Peri] What we have here is a turtle shell 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. - [Beth] Now, it is only in the Torres Strait that we find masks made out of this very precious material of turtle shell. - [Peri] In this particular case, we have a frigatebird 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. - [Beth] 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. - [Peri] And in addition to turtle shell, we also have feathers and shell and raffia that add to the texture and the materiality of this piece. - [Beth] And of course, this would only have been one part of an elaborate costume used in a masquerade. - [Peri] It would have been seen in motion in front of an audience when it was actually used. - [Beth] Right, 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. - [Peri] And it's likely the dancer was making the gestures of a bird. - [Beth] So who's represented here? Art historians conjecture that perhaps this is the face of a hero. Someone who lived in the past, but who did supernatural deeds he's being remembered here. - [Peri] 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 suggest a beard. Somebody important in your lineage who you would wanna honor through this mask. - [Beth] And perhaps that person was associated with the frigatebird on the top of the mask. Or perhaps the frigatebird was associated, in some way, with the wearer of the mask. - [Peri] 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. - [Beth] And so this mask likely connected the wearer, connected the culture to supernatural, to something beyond the physical world. - [Peri] 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 shell was actively traded and that European sailors in particular, were interested in collecting turtle shell 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 masks, 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. - [Beth] In the end, we're 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. - [Peri] 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. - [Beth] They almost look like propellers. The whole sculpture, this whole mask gives me a feeling of flight and of upward movement. - [Peri] And while we may not be completely satisfied with understanding the cultural context of this piece, we can actually really appreciate it formally in this space. (Jazzy piano music)