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Passport to the Past

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Body Mask

96 in. (243.8 cm)

Unknown, Papua New Guinean
Papua New Guinean

Object Type: Basketry
Medium and Support: Cane fibers, shells, feathers, pigment
Credit Line: Marion Stratton Gould Fund
Accession Number: 1973.138
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Location: Not currently on view

In earlier times, masks like this one were used in traditional initiation ceremonies in which young boys became men. Skulls of ancestors sometimes adorned the masks to reinforce their role as benevolent ancestral spirits. The dancer would have looked out of the eyes of the lower face and treated as handles the holes hidden below the small patches of grass.

As it was created in the 20th century, we know this body mask was made by artists specifically for sale. Even as social changes affect a culture, the traditional arts of a people can become representations of ethnic identity and potent symbols of familiar values and vaunted ideals of an earlier time. This mask was made by people living on the Sepik River, the major trade and communications artery of Papua New Guinea. Today, it is on the Sepik that most westerners experience Papua New Guinea as cruise lines travel up and down the river, stopping at villages where local artists sell their work.
[Gallery label text, 2009]

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