For thousands of years human beings have been using their bodies as a canvas, be it through tattoos, piercings or face and body paint. Papua New Guinea (PNG) is no exception to this intriguing visual language and as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world; tribal body decorating plays a prominent role in PNG culture. With an account of over 800 different ethnic groups, there is great diversity between tribes and as a result, an abundance of differing forms of traditional body art. Each culture or tribe is unique in its use of this medium and the reasons behind the art form are as varied as the paint palette itself. Here, I will attempt to explain a mere few of the incredible tribes and their connection with traditional body art.
Huli Tribe, Image source: Exodus Travels
Within the Highlands of PNG, tribal body art is quite prevalent. One of the most captivating tribal groups, well known for their decorative face art and costumes during battle, comes from the indigenous group known as the Huli.
The Huli people are said to have come from one ancestor called Hela. He had four sons – Opena, Huli, Duna, Tuguba and one daughter, Hewa. The Huli are people predominantly from Tari Pori, Margarima, Benaria, Hulia and Tani, Pureni areas. Opena land includes the whole of current Enga Province. Duna are the people from the whole of Strickland Gorge and Koroba-Kopiago electorates. Tuguba people live in the areas around Mt Bosavi and ends at Mt Gigira. The daughter, Hewa’s descendants are found in the Lake Kopiago district and immediate surrounding areas.
The Huli people are renowned for their aggressive warring nature. Both face and body makeup play an integral role within the Huli culture and their choice of paint colours not coincidently reflects the culture’s warring nature. A bold and energising yellow usually made from clay called ambua contrasts against a fiercely bright red, while touches of white clay known as momo and black charcoal are used to add decorative features to the overall design. These specifically selected colours not only instil a sense of fear in the Huli’s opponents but assist the Huli in transcending their own state of consciousness, helping the warriors to overcome fear and prepare for battle.
In addition to the Huli’s pre and post war makeup, other occasions also require the use of this important art form. Seasonal events and rituals also call for facial art with initiation ceremonies being particularly significant as they mark the rite of passage from child to adult within the tribe. The Huli men take the lead role during these ceremonies and are responsible for the creation of both exquisite and elaborate facial designs. In contrast, during Mali (dances) men and women, including children, apply their own face paint which is worn throughout the performance. When you add the complete ceremonial regalia to the makeup, it makes for one impressive tribal outfit.
Moving to the Chimbu Province (sometimes referred to as Simbu), you will find the hauntingly beautiful yet fear-inducing full face and body art of the skeleton men of the Bugamo tribe who paint the human skeleton onto their bodies. There is nothing more intimidating than a walking talking skeleton, which is exactly why the Bugamo tribe transform themselves into these black and white alter egos when preparing for battle. With only a handful of facts available, the Bugamo tribe, with their full body makeup, are still largely a mystery to the rest of the world and this seems to add to their allure. It is known however, that each individual is responsible for applying their own makeup and as such add their own unique touches.
Along the Sepik River, tribal body art takes the form of masks. While one can find mask making villages all along the river, the middle river is the most densely populated with the Iatmul language group people between Moim and Pagwi. With over 25 independent villages in this region, their individuality is reflected in their art, including their masks. While every village has their own distinct carving style, it is the men who perform this duty. They carve intricate designs into soft wood or clay which has been moulded over a coconut or turtle shell. Using elements and pigment from the earth, the men colour their masks before adorning them with shells, pig tusks and cassowary feathers. Interestingly, many of the masks are made with a lack of eye holes. This is because they are not made to be worn directly over the face but rather secured onto a large cone shaped wicker framework known as a tumbuan. Many other masks are made with intention of not being worn at all but serve to attract or fend off certain spirits.
Savi Mask, Image source: Baktun Art
Each mask of the Sepik River carries with it the complexities of each individual tribe. While they are often related either directly or indirectly to a clan’s spirits, ancestors or totem, there is a wide array of masks for an even wider range of purposes. For instance the savi mask which always portrays a protruding tongue is primarily about the power to counter black magic. Although the protruding tongue may look cheeky it actually serves as a sign of aggression towards clan enemies. Mai (or mwai) masks are represented as a pair of mythical brothers or sisters and act as teachers in young men’s initiation ceremonies. The masks represent the spirits of sacred totemic names. It is considered taboo to use one’s real name, so an elder who wears the mai mask during an initiation ceremony becomes a spiritual teacher who can then use the totemic names without bringing harm upon himself. In many of the villages along the Sepik, it is acceptable to dispose of masks that no longer seem to serve a purpose or if they have been deemed powerless.
Asaro Mudmen, Image source: Lonely Planet
Masks of a different kind can also be found in Asaro, just northwest of Goroka. The now world famous Asaro mudmen are warriors who traditionally covered themselves in grey mud and wore giant masks before heading into battle. Although the story varies from source to source, there are a few key elements that most agree upon. The legend goes that during one of many tribal fights in which the Asaro inhabitants were losing, the survivors hid in the muddy banks of the river until nightfall. When the survivors later tried to sneak away, completely covered in grey mud, the enemy spotted them and believed they were witnessing the avenging ghosts of those who had been killed. The enemy panicked and fled, leaving behind the surprised Asaro men, who decided to continue using this tactic as psychological warfare. The men went even further by creating giant ghastly clay mud masks to complete their warrior outfits.
Body art, in all its varying degrees and complexities can be seen as a form of cultural contradictions. It gives people the power to express their individuality, while simultaneously being an expression of group identity. Although body art differs in its forms across PNG’s varying cultures, it remains an integral component of the nation’s ethos. Until recently, some of PNG’s tribes and thus their tribal body art have been largely hidden from the outside world. Today, however, visitors and tourists have the opportunity to witness this incredible art form at various festivals and sing-sings such as The Gokora Show, the Enga Cultural Show, or the Mt Hagen cultural show.
Gudmundur (Gummi) Fridriksson, is the CEO of Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Ltd, overseeing the development of Paga Hill Estate, a world-class, master planned estate located in the heart of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gudmundur first arrived in Papua New Guinea over 20 years ago and is passionate about sharing PNG’s natural beauty and diverse cultures with the world. Find out more about Gudmundur Fridriksson on his website:http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com/ and about the Paga Hill Estate development at http://www.pagahillestate.com