In Focus

Mouth mask probably depicting the head of a rooster

Among the rarest of the ethnographic artifacts from the Southeast Moluccas are small masklike objects depicting the head of an ani­mal. On the back of each of these objects is a wooden tab, extending from the inside of the head, which is clamped between the teeth and serves to hold the mask on the wearer’s lower face in front of the mouth. This type of object is thus sometimes referred to as a mouth mask.

As far as we know, only four of these mouth masks exist in museum collections worldwide. The oldest specimen was collected in 1888 in the village of Tombra on the island of Leti. According to the man who parted with it, the mask was very old and was the only one of its kind on the island. This statement was subse­quently proved to be incorrect, as in 1914 the German ethnologist Wilhelm Müller-Wismar discovered another two specimens on Leti, in the village of Tutukei. These three masks resemble one another, and they each depict a pig’s head. The Tombra specimen is currently in the collection of the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands; the second and third masks both belong to the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, Germany.

The Dallas Museum of Art object is the fourth mouth mask, and it comes from Leti as well; it was collected in the village of Luhuleli about forty years ago. Its design is particularly remarkable. In this case, it is not a pig that is represented, but instead a bird, presumably a rooster. The materials of this mask are in fact similar to those of the pig masks; the head, carved from wood, has round bits of shell for eyes, while a series of boar tusks gives the mask a dramatic appearance.

The collectors were not able to obtain much in the way of infor­mation when acquiring these masks. In Tutukei, Müller-Wismar was able to learn only that both masks were used as “porka tools,” and the collector of the Tombra mask noted simply that the object was used for the “pig dance poreke.”[1] In the case of the bird mask, no additional information was gleaned. Still, the little that is known suggests the context in which these objects functioned; they were used in dances during the so-called porka ritual.

This fertility feast, which used to be celebrated in the Babar- Kisar region, was intended to bring about a renewal of life or, as Müller-Wismar noted on Leti, the proliferation of man, cattle, and vegetation. It would usually be held following some catastrophe: the burning down of a village, a fatal epidemic, crop failure caused by a drought, and so on. However, on many islands the celebration would be held at fixed intervals. Luang, for example, had a porka feast once every seven years.

The festivities, which abounded in song and dance and lasted for weeks, were disapproved of by missionaries and the Dutch colonial government due to their alleged encouragement of both headhunt­ing and promiscuity. Beginning around 1850, the performance of the porka ritual was consequently prohibited, though it continued to be performed in remote areas over the ensuing decades. By the 20th century, elements of the ritual gradually became inter­twined with the Western celebration of the new year.

In early literature, there is no reference to the role that mouth masks played in traditional ceremonies. Nonetheless, we can link the pig masks to the porka ritual in an indirect manner. According to J. G. F. Riedel, a Dutch administrator who visited Leti several times between 1880 and 1883, there were performances of a bean dance, a goat dance, and a sea-worm dance during the festivities. All the evidence implies that these dances were meant to generate an abundance of crops, livestock, and other staples. The mention of the goat dance is of particular importance, since goats, along with pigs, represent great wealth on the islands. Thus, goats and pigs were often grouped together, and they were even referred to with the same word (pipiwawi ). Furthermore, goats and pigs were prime sacrificial animals for the porka ritual, which explains why there were explicit prayers for the replacement of those sacrificed with live ones. The existence of a goat dance strongly suggests the coexistence of a pig dance, and thus the information obtained with the Tombra mask appears to be correct.

The function of the bird mask seems to have been entirely dif­ferent. One of the most important dances of the porka feast was a war dance performed by men, which portrayed a hunt for heads. On many islands, these dances were led by a champion who was called the “dog’s tongue.” During the spectacle, an imaginary dog made up of all the dancers would symbolically lacerate the enemy.

In some villages, the dancers portrayed a ruthless, aggres­sive rooster. This phenomenon can still be observed during the New Year’s celebrations in the Babar archipelago. The dancers are adorned with rooster feathers, and they each wear a small mask on their heads that covers their eyes. On top of this mask is a red-and-white “horn” made of cotton and filled with kapok, the cotton-like fluff around the seeds of the Kapok tree. It is quite probable that the rooster mask from Luhuleli was formerly used in a similar war dance.

The rarity of such masks undoubtedly relates to the fact that the porka ritual was celebrated at the village level and therefore required relatively few accoutrements, as compared to objects produced for individual use. Additionally, many objects were probably lost due to colonial prohibition of these traditional celebrations. Riedel, the Dutch administrator cited above, also made a crucial observa­tion. During his tenure, every village had its own way of performing songs and dances, which, probably on penalty of war, was not to be copied by other villages. In other words, a sort of patent protected the use of the mouth masks.

[1] Original notes from Müller-Wismar, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne; Planten and Wertheim 1893: 164.

Excerpt from

Nico de Jonge, "Mouth mask probably depicting the head of a rooster," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 284-287.