by Dr Lisa McDonald
Canterbury Museum recently said a warm welkam olketa (welcome everyone) to members of the Canterbury Papua New Guinea Wantoks Community as they celebrated the 43rd anniversary of their homeland’s independence.
Visitors spent time with a selection of objects from the Museum’s collection that reflect the rich cultural diversity of the nation. Body adornments composed of bird feathers and animal teeth, bilums (bags) made of natural fibres including hibiscus and cuscus (possum fur) and elaborately carved kundu (drums) with goanna skin membrane were just some of the treasures on display.
Members of the Canterbury Papua New Guinea Wantoks Community at Canterbury Museum, 2018
The group was impressed by a large tapa Kavat mask made and used by the Uramot Baining people of Vunga village (Gazelle Peninsula, East New Britain) during an Atut – a traditional dance – to commemorate the anniversary of Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1988.
Historically linked to male circumcision and initiation rites, the Atut is today performed in a range of different contexts. In ritualistic settings the dance commemorates the ancestors, acknowledges prosperous agricultural harvests and welcomes the birth of children, while public performances at local, national and international festivals introduce audiences to the customary world of the Baining. Groups of 20 to 30 male participants each wear masks of varying styles and designs as they dance through the embers of a bonfire under the cover of night, all the while accompanied by rhythmic drumming and the chanting of other initiated men.
Kavat mask 2011.177.1
Atut being performed in Rabaul, East New Britain, 2016
A delicate mourning cap from the Maisin people of Collingwood Bay (Oro Province) was also on view. Dating to the 1860s, the cap is a material embodiment of historic funerary practices. Worn by women as expressions of grief and respect for their deceased husbands, the caps were most often accompanied by matching coix seed bodices and necklaces.
During a period of seclusion that could last many months, a widow was not permitted to be seen or heard by her fellow villagers. If venturing outside her home, she was covered by a large sheet of tapa. Only after the tepurukari – a ceremony that signified the end of the mourning period – was she permitted to discard her garments of bereavement.
Widow’s cap E75.1
One of two orator’s stools held in the Museum’s collection gave visitors an insight into the world of initiated men from the Middle Sepik River region. Collected in 1916 – a time when the northern half of the country was under German administration – the stool once stood inside a haus tambaran (men’s ceremonial house).
These objects are considered persons in the communities from which they originate, having both public and secret names that connect them to the ancestors. During discussions and debates, often about village business or preparations for warfare, men would stand by the stool while speaking – sometimes striking it with a bunch of leaves to add emphasis when making a specific point or to reinforce a particular sentiment.
Orator’s stool E116.10.37
Canterbury Museum i telem tenkyu tru Nora Taylor, Aunty Dikoi Taylor na Aunty Lucy Bennett lo ol sapot blo yupela.
Canterbury Museum says many thanks to Nora Taylor, Aunty Dikoi Taylor and Aunty Lucy Bennett for their support and assistance.
Dr Lisa McDonald is Associate Curator Human History (Māori and Pacific) at Canterbury Museum and Adjunct Fellow, School of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Canterbury. Her research focuses on contemporary art from the Western Pacific, where she collaborates with makers primarily based in Port Vila and Port Moresby.