Tatanua mask

early 20th century
Wood, paint, opercula, shell, and cloth
32 7/8 × 5 3/8 × 12 7/8 in. (83.5 × 13.65 × 32.7 cm)
Arts of the Pacific Islands
Not On View
Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

The term tatanua _designates both the helmet mask with a thick crest of orange plant fiber and the dance during which it is worn. Both the mask and the dance are associated with the elaborate funerary festivals called _malagan. Preparation for tatanua dance involves a number of prohibitions, including sexual abstinence, in order to avoid misfortune. A successful performance proves the ability of men to interact with the supernatural power embodied by the tatanua masks.

The crest of tatanua masks imitates a local ceremonial hairstyle for men, which once required shaving the head except for a central ridge of hair. On the mask, the bare areas on either side of the crest support a decorative accumulation of materials such as plaid trade cloth and plaster, which often form a spiral design. The two sides of the mask are generally different, a feature that increases the drama of the performance as the line of dancers, moving in unison, first turns one side, then the other, to the audience. The openwork carving on the face of the mask and the use of the pigmented valves of sea-snails as eyes are characteristic features of malagan objects.

Although today dancers wear palm-frond skirts and shirts, in the past dancers may have been nude or combined body paint with a leaf skirt. Once inside the mask, the dancer must remain absolutely silent, for the utterance of any sound could bring death to himself or a member of his clan. Music for the dance consists of songs sung by a male chorus, accompanied by a bamboo slit gong.

Adapted from

DMA Label text.

Web Resources