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What is an Asaro Mud Mask?

By: Michael Mel, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 16 Sep 2016

The Australian Museum has commissioned the creation of five Asaro Mud Masks to be held in the Cultural Collection.

Papua New Guinea has over many years enthralled and charmed people. This appeal lies with the fact that there are over 800 distinct language groups on the island. From the highlands to the coast, each of these communities has lived for hundreds of years with their unique history, knowledge and cultural practices.

The Highlands as a region is home to numerous cultural groups, well-known for their spectacular headdresses assembled from the iridescent tail plumage from various species of the Bird of Paradise.

Complementary to the Bird of Paradise headdresses are the equally-recogniseable but vastly different Asaro Mud Masks (Holosa). The Asaro community is made up of several tribes and numerous smaller clan groups living at the foot of Mount Daulo and the start of the great Asaro Valley that runs east towards Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province.

The Asaro headdress is a ball of grey clay. The rich gluey clay, dug up from sites located at nearby creeks, is carefully carried to a clearing in the village centre. In the hands of the expert, the clay is shaped and moulded to remove any impurities and then rolled into small round lengths. A flat surface is created, sometimes on a large flat piece of plank. On the flat surface a round length of clay is placed as a ring. Then another round ring is placed atop the other. The layered rings are smoothed with the fingers and thumb on the inside and outside. An oval shaped head emerges. The end that rests on a flat surface is open. The facial features, including eyes, ears and nose are formed and placed on around the oval-shaped head. The faces of the masks are distorted and disfigured. Grotesque eyes sockets and balls are set in and ears and noses protrude from the sides and front of the face. The gaping mouth, sometimes with a protruding grey tongue has a row of pigs’ teeth with large gaps is pressed in on the lips. The forehead and cheeks are occasionally tattooed or patterns are added.

Once complete, the mask is set aside and partially dried in the sun. The mask is quite heavy due to the moisture content of the clay. When the time comes, the dancers (always male) swathe their bodies with the same clay. Long, sharp bamboo tubes are prepared and placed over the fingers. Wearing a basic loincloth, an assistant lifts the mask over the dancer’s head.

In very slow motion the grotesque figure gently and deliberately walks forward. The long elongated fingers cackle and move about the air in front of the dancer. It seems flies are being brushed away. There is no singing. No accompanying instrument. Just quietness. Now and again the elongated fingers come together. The numerous dancers (between 5-10 dancers) move up to and around the on-lookers. Children recoil and shrink to hide from the figure. Some cling tightly to their parents as others run away. The Asaro Mudmen amble, meander and drift their way around the space and chase away the nasty, malevolent and wicked.

Michael Mel, Cultural Collections