Masking and Ritual Theater of the Baining and Gimi Peoples of Papua New Guinea

Introduction

Ceremonies of the Gimi: Photographs
by David Gillison

 

Art of the Chachet, Kairak, and Uramot Baining of New Britain, Papua New Guinea
by Dr. George A. Corbin

 

An overview of Baining Culture

The Baining live on the northeastern tip of New Britain in the country of Papua New Guinea. They are confined to the Gazelle Peninsula (see map, Figure 1) in a mountainous tropical forest. Their environment is hot and humid with constant equatorial rains throughout the year.

The Baining speak a simple object-dominated, non-Austronesian Language (formerly called an "Old Papuan" language) which has several dialects, including Chachet, Randolit, Kairak, Uramot, Mali, and Asimbali Baining.

The name "Baining" refers to all the people who live in the Baining mountains and speak a dialect of Baining. The word Baining comes from the Austronesian-speaking Tolai people, neighbors to the northeast. It is a compound of bad, to go inland into the bush, and nig, a wild uncultivated area, thereby referring to the Baining as wild uncultivated people who live in the bush.

The Baining throughout-the Gazelle peninsula refer to themselves as "the people" or "people" and see themselves as the original inhabitants in the area. While there has been no archaeological research conducted in the Baining areas, a long period of residence in the Gazelle Peninsula is suggested by the lack of migration myths and preponderance of creation myths about Baining ancestors originating in the territories they inhabit. Unlike the Tolai, who appear to have migrated from the Duke of York Islands and Southern New Ireland in the past century or two, the Baining may have resided in East New Britain for thousands of years. They have no tradition of using canoes, either simple dugouts or more complex outrigger types, as do the Tolai, and would have had to arrive at their present location by walking the entire length of the island of New Britain in an early non-Austronesian migration into the area several thousand years before the Christian era.

At the time of early contact with Europeans in the late 19th century, the Baining were loosely organized acephalous (without chief or other stratified leaders) groups that spoke related but distinct dialects. In some cases these groups exhibited mutual hostility toward each other and neighboring non-Baining groups. The three groups represented by the art forms on exhibit here are the northwest Chachet and central Kairak and Uramot Baining (see map, Figure 1). At the time of contact in the late 19th century, it is estimated that there were about 6,000 Tolai living on the northeast coast of the Gazelle Peninsula and about 10,000 Baining spread out over the rest of the Gazelle Peninsula. Today there are over 100,000 Tolai and about 8,000 Baining living in approximately the same territories as they had at the time of colonization by the Germans before the turn of the century. Obviously, the Tolai have prospered during the post colonial period while the Baining have lost, or at best maintained, a level of population equal to the precolonial period, referred to as the "traditional" period.

Some General Notes about Baining Art and Ceremonies

The Baining are unusual among Melanesian cultures in that they create "perishable" art forms in bark cloth, wood, and leaves, which are used only once for a single day or nighttime ceremony, then discarded or destroyed. This artistic tradition serves to articulate, in visible form, the entire sphere of existence of the Baining people. Their art is presented in dramatic ceremonies representing the complementary daytime/nighttime, male/female, and village/bush aspects of Baining life.

The elaborate ceremonial presentation of their display pieces, headdresses, masks, and body decorations is in` dramatic contrast to the everyday life activities of the people. The making of the art and its presentation serves as a cultural unifying force among the Baining, who are by tradition dispersed in small family-gardening groups throughout the Gazelle Peninsula, These ceremonies celebrate the harvest and the birth of new children commemorate the dead, and are an integral part of the initiation of male and female youth into full productive adult status within each dialect group.

Baining life centers around two complementary activities, gardening and hunting/gathering. These activities provide sustenance and the materials for shelter. Traditionally, gardening is the province of women, and hunting/gathering, the province of men. Both activities are given symbolic expression in ritual art during the daytime and nighttime ceremonies in the Chachet, Kairak, and Uramot Baining.

In the day-dance ceremony the primary focus of artistic expression is on symbols of female-oriented tasks and products derived from the fruits of the harvest. The colossal display pieces, headdresses, decorated body arts, and composite helmet masks depict growth and fertility-oriented activities related to gardening.


Figure 1: Map of East New Britain

 


Uramot Baining (Gaulim village)
Mendas mask

Collection: H. Gallasch, South Australia. Corbin Negative 1973.3.27.

Kairak Baining (Ivere village)
G. Corbin, 1973

N.W. Baining
Night-dance mask representing the spirit of a
freshwater fish.

Kairak Baining (Ivere village)
Lingam night-dance mask

G. Corbin, 1973

Uramot Baining
Mendas day-dance mask

Collection: H. Gallasch, South Australia. Corbin Negative 1973.11.1.

In contrast, the art of the night-dance ceremony depicts the products of male activities: the active, chaotic world of the bush. The headdresses, helmet masks, and composite helmet masks made for the night dance incorporate a loosely age-graded series of specialized artistic symbols expressing the fruits of of male-oriented existence in the form of hunted-and-gathered flora and fauna.

The pace and dance movements of the participants the day and nighttime ceremonies express the contrasting actions inherent in female fertility (slow, gradual growth, and ripening), and random active struggle and eventual control of the natural environment embodied in male hunting and slashing/burning.

Making of the Day and Nighttime Ceremonial Art

In all areas, only initiated Baining men create the various display pieces, headdresses, decorated body spears, and masks used for ceremonies. These art forms are constructed in temporary shelters and houses away from the village in the surrounding bush. The various paths to these shelters are marked with taboo signs scaring away men, children, and uninitiated males. In former times, to violate these markers and to walk into a a secret art-making shelter or house was punishable by sickness and eventual death. Even today, nearly a hundred years after first contact with European culture, religion, education, and economic systems, the Baining women and children hold to sacred and secret nature of the male art-making activity and avoid these areas at all costs.

Leaves, bark cloth, bamboo, strips of wood are the primary raw materials of the Baining artist. Bark cloth is stretched and sewn over thin bamboo and wooden armatures. Large leaves are used as filler material. Bark cloth is made by a long and laborious process of beating the inner bark of a paper mulberry or breadfruit tree until the fibers separate and spreading this flattened material out into sections of approximately 18 inches wide by five feet long. The resulting cloth is soaked in a local stream, then laid out flattened on stone stones, and bleached by the sun. After the bark cloth has been cut and sewn over the leaves and the armatures, it is painted with red and black pigments. The red is often derived from chewed tuber roots, or tongue blood mixed with sugarcane water. The black is usually made by scraping the burnt outer husk of a coconut, and mixing it with sugarcane water. A thin stick with a chewed end serves as the artist's brush. In almost all Baining painting, the white bark cloth serves as white negative space surrounded by red or black pigment.

Art in the Daytime Ceremony

In the Chachet, Kairak, and Uramot Baining, the painted bark cloth display pieces, headdresses, and composite helmet masks created for the day-dance ceremonies are worn by men. These men present themselves and the art forms to a female orchestra who sing and beat bamboo tubes on rocks and wood on the ground. To the Baining, these men and the various art forms they present or wear take on feminine identities for the brief period of their presentation to the female orchestra and the audience. After the male dancers remove their headdresses, masks, body spears and other feminine art symbols, they are regarded once again as men. Many of the costumes worn by daytime dancers include women's skirts, thereby adding to the feminine identity of the male dancers. The audience at these presentations consists of men, women, and children from various villages.

In the Chachet Baining, the display pieces, headdresses, and composite helmet masks (See plates 1-2) are painted with "plant-growth" patterns in red and black against a white (bark cloth) background. These patterns are associated with products of the garden as well as useful plants gathered by; women in the bush. In addition, the headdresses are said to symbolize the growth of garden plants toward the sun, and have actual plants sticking out from their top (plate 1). The composite helmet masks of the Chachet (plate a) consist of a lower sculptural form,, which is usually some type of bird, such as a chicken, owl, hornbill, cassowary, or other bush bird. In some Chachet areas the lower sculptural forms also depict tree forks, animal and human bones, and other forms associated with ancestors or spirits. The tapering elongated shape extending diagonally behind the bottom sculptural farm often represents a coconut tree, a common source of food found in many Baining gardens. The trunk-like shape of this type of mask is often painted with the "plant-growth" patterns. Some masks have additional sculptural elements added to the top of the bird's head. These include an airplane shape (left side of plate 2), various human-like faces (to make people laugh), and birds with outstretched wings (see exhibition).

The day-dance art forms of the Kairak and Uramot Baining are stylistically distinct from those of the Chachet, although they have common roots as being related to garden and ancestral symbolism. The composite helmet masks of the Uramot Baining are often as much as 18 or 20 feet in height. The mask represented in plates 3a and 3b has a lower mask-like shape made of painted bark cloth over bamboo and wooden armatures. The shape represents a large rounded leaf of a type used for wrapping ceremonial food before cooking. The tree is also thought to have magical curative powers. The large trunk-like form extending behind the leaf shape represents a special variety of tree found in the bush. This specific tree takes many generations to rot away after it has died and fallen to the ground.

The Uramot Baining are very impressed with its longevity. The patterns painted on the rounded-leaf section of this Uramot mask (plate 3b) include red and black triangular forms beneath the concentric circular eyes. These are the tears of the spirit represented. The Baining assert that the spirit is mourning its death brought about in the service of the Baining. These red and black patterns also create three elongated negative white shapes which represent the tracks made by chickens or other species of bush fowl. The thin black patterns radiating outward from the center of the forehead represent fern leaves, a favorite food of various spirit creatures. The red triangles repeated four times within the center of the forehead represent the cross section of a leaf that has been cut. The patterns painted on the large tree-trunk-like shape behind the lower mask represent the irregular marks made on the ground by caterpillars and snakes and three- and six-part negative shapes created by the intersection of black pointed forms representing spears. The Kairak Baining also use similar red, black, and white patterns on their day-dance display pieces, headdresses, and masks. Plate 4 shows a drawing of day-dance mask motifs collected from a Kairak Baining in 1973 (see other examples in the exhibition). The marks made by a caterpillar or snake and the frequent use of the chicken or bushfowl track patterns are common to their visual design as are the active: use of negative white shapes to create complex patterns vying with the positive red and black forms.

Art in the Nighttime Ceremony

In contrast to the clay-dance ceremonies of the Chachet, Kairak, and Uramot, in which a female orchestra sings and pounds percussion rhythms with bamboo on rocks and wood, the night-dance ceremonies have an all-male orchestra seated on the ground before a huge bonfire. They also sing and beat bamboo tubes on rocks and wood to create percussive rhythms. When the night-dance ceremony is about to begin, i.e., when the fire is lighted and the orchestra begins to sing, the women and children retire to their huts in fear. It is believed that the night-dance bush spirits are very dangerous to them.

While day-dance patterns of movement and presentation of art forms were subtle, slow, ponderous, and "feminine," the three types of headdresses and masks presented in the night dance are accompanied by rigorous movement, loud noises, cries, and the additional spectacle of men jumping barefoot into the fire' wearing various masks (see exhibition photograph).

The symbolism of the day dance art refers to feminine garden products while most of the night-dance art: is associated with the wild bush and flora and fauna obtained there through active exploitation by males.. The decorated headdresses,, helmet masks, and: composite helmet masks worn during the night dance also depict male or female spirits. The males donning these art forms wear a penis sheath of a masculine type (a mushroom) or a feminine type (a flower), thereby designating the gender of the spirit represented. Each dancer also wears a long bark-cloth tail attached to the skin at the base of the spine, giving the spirit a bird-like nature. It is believed that these night-dance spirits live in trees like birds.

The piercing of the skin is associated with male initiation at puberty, and traditionally all adult males had a permanent hole at the base of their spine for attaching the bark cloth tail. The masks of the night dance often represent the spirit of animals of the bush' particularly animals associated with the hunt. The list of animal forms is large for all three areas. The Chachet night-dance helmet masks include various pigs (plate a), owls, hornbills (plate 6), rats, fish, fruit-eating bats, and various bush birds (plate 7) as well as human-like and plant-like spirits. Chachet night-dance helmet masks (there are four in the exhibition) tend to be small, and are not very elaborately painted as compared to their day dance counterparts. These helmet masks often mimic some distinguishing visual characteristic of the animal or thing depicted. The helmet masks of the Kairak and Uramot are very different stylistically from those of the Chachet.

The Kairak and Uramot night-dance masks (helmet and composite helmet types) are larger than those of the Chachet, are more elaborately painted with abstract and mimetic patterns, and, by and large, tend to be more abstract. In recent years, however, younger Kairak and Uramot men have begun creating masked spirits that more clearly resemble the original source of their inspiration.

In all three areas, the making of the night-dance art is similar to that of the daytime dance similar materials, techniques, and even more secrecy. Plate 8 shows a bent-wood and vine framework for a Kairak Baining night-dance mask of the spirit of a tree fork (which holds up their shelters and houses). It is over this elaborate armature that the artist puts large "filler" and sews sheets of bark cloth to create the "skin" of the spirit. Afterward, the various patterns are painted on in black and red, with white negative shapes being a common visual characteristic. The spirit of a domesticated cat (a night hunter) made by a Kairak Baining illustrated in plate 9. Note that the same visual elements of design (plates 3a and 3b) are to be found. Red and black "tear" patterns, negative white "footprint" patterns, the marks made by "caterpillars" or "snakes," and "spear" patterns can be seen all over the front and back of the mask. A unique pattern here is the centipede pattern in the center of the forehead. The large bark-cloth shapes sticking out at a diagonal from the eyes are the "ears" of the cat.

All three dialect groups make composite helmet masks for for the night dance. Unlike the smaller helmet masks which frequently jump into the fire during the night, the larger composite masks merely skirt next to the fire barely touching it. This is largely due to the fact that the large masks are as much as 12 or more feet in length and at least five or six feet in height. The large composite masks are often similar to smaller masks in the basic identity of the spirit; however, they have a long, painted, bark-cloth-covered bamboo tube sticking out of the mask's mouth (plates 10a and l0b), and horizontal and vertical struts extending out of the basic mask. These struts are used to attach a thin wood-and-vine framework on Which elaborate cut-leaf patterns are created to flank (and nearly completely hide both sides of the mask (see exhibition photographs). The composite night-dance masks of the Chachet tend to be simple cowl-like masks with protruding bark-cloth-covered bamboo tube, whereas the Kairak and Uramot mask are more varied in their basic mask forms. Leaf, tree-fork (plates 10a and 10b), pig-bone, and praying mantis are commonly found among both the Kairak and Uramot Baining. It is evident from the tree-fork composite night-dance masks in plates 10a and 10b that the Kairak excel at creating an exciting blend of sculptural form and painted decorative pattern (see also samples of Uramot painted bark cloth, and Chachet and Kairak drawings in the exhibition). The night dance concludes when the male orchestra successfully "frightens" the masked spirits away from the village back to their home in the bush.

 

Dr. George A. Corbin, Department of Art Lehman College, The City University of New York

Exhibition Checklist

N Northwest: (Chachet) Baining

1. Composite helmet mask used in the day-dance celebration. Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 8' x 14' x 11" (10" x 17 1/2" for the attached oval shape).

2. Composite helmet mask used in the day-dance celebration. Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment 92" x 8" x 19".

3. Composite helmet mask used in the day-dance celebration. Malaseit village, 1971-1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 9' x 30' x 33".

4. Composite helmet mask used in the day-dance celebration. Randolit village, 1971-72; bark cloth, leaves wood, vines, and pigment 9 1/2' x 14" x 26".

5. Extended cone-shaped headdress for the day-dance celebration. Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines,, and pigment. 54 1/2"x 8".

6. Extended cone-shaped headdress for the day-dance celebration.. Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment.. 38" x 6".

7. Night-dance helmet mask representing a pig spirit. Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 23" x 9" x 12".

8. Night-dance helmet mask representing a hornbill spirit. Walmatki Village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 23 1/2" x 15 1/4" x 13 1/2".

9. Night-dance mask representing a rat spirit Walmatki village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves' wood' vines, and pigment. 25 1/2"x 11" x 8".

10. Night-dance helmet mask representing a bush-bird spirit. Walmatki village 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 16" x 9" x 8".

11. Drawing of day-dance decorative patterns.. Walmatki village, 1972; paper and crayons. 11'' x 15".

12. Drawing of night-dance decorative patterns. Walmatki village, 1972; paper and crayons. 11" x 15".

13. Drawing of the spirit of a bird song in the forest. Walmatki village, 1972; paper and crayons. 11" x 15".

Central (Kairak) Baining

14. Night-dance helmet mask representing a leaf spirit Malabunga village, 1973; bark cloth, leaves, wood vines, and pigment. 54" x 29" x 20 1/4".

 

15. Night-dance helmet mask representing a praying mantis spirit. Malabunga village, 1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, and pigment. 42 1/2" x 19" x 17" 1/2".

16. Night-dance helmet mask representing a pig's vertebra spirit. Malabunga village, 1971-1972; bark cloth, leaves, wood' vines, and pigment. 27 1/2" x 14 1/2" x 26".

17. Drawing of day-dance decorative patterns. Malabunga village, 1973; paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4". 18. Drawing of day-dance decorative patterns Malabunga village, 1973; paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4".

19. Drawing of day-dance decorative patterns. Malabunga village, 1973, paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4'.

20. Drawing of night-dance decorative patterns Malabunga village, 1973; paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4'.

21. Drawing of night-dance decorative patterns. Malabunga village, 1973; paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4'.

22. Drawing of night-dance decorative patterns. Malabunga village, 1973; paper and pen. 7" x 9 3/4". Central (Uramot) Baining

23. Night-dance he/met mask representing a seed spirit Kainagunun village (?), 1972-1973; bark cloth, paper, wood, vines, and pigment. 51" x 9" x 28".

24. Night-dance helmet mask used by women at the beginning of the ceremony Gaulim village, 1972-1973; bark cloth, leaves, wood, vines, raffia, and pigments. 17" x 8" x 8"" (without raffia).

25. Day- and night-dance decorative patterns painted on bark village, 1982; bark cloth and pigment. 51" x 17 1/2".

26. Day- and night-dance decorative patterns painted on bark cloth. Gaulim village, 1982; bark cloth and pigment. 50 1/4" x 14". 27. Day- and night-dance decorative patterns painted on bark cloth. Gaulim village, 1982;; bark cloth and pigment. 46" x 15".

28. Day- and night-dance decorative painted on bark cloth. Gaulim village, 1982; bark cloth and pigment. 521/2-x17 1/2".

29. Day- and night-dance decorative patterns painted on bark cloth. Gaulim village, 1982; bark cloth and pigment. 59"x16 1/4".

Footnotes and Plates

 


1.

 

1.     Chachet Baining day-dance headdresses on display in the mask making area in the
        forest near Walmatki village. Corbin Negative 1972.39.18A.

 

 


2.

 

2.     A pair of Chachet Baining day-dance masks on display in the mask making area in
        the forest near Walmatki village. The mask on the right is in the George and Sarah
        Corbin collection, New York. The whereabouts of the mask on the left is unknown.
        Corbin Negative 1972.39.17A.

 


3a.

 

3a.     Uramot Baining day-dance mask from Gaulim village. Collection: The National
          Museum and Art Gallery, Boroko, Papua New Guinea. Corbin Negative 1982.61.9.

 


3b.

 

3b.     Detail of the Uramot Baining day-dance mask in plate 3a. The lower section of the
          mask represents the spirit of a leaf, while the large vertical section in back
          represents a tree. Corbin Negative 1982.61.10.

 


4.

 

4.     Detail of a Kairak Baining (Malabunga village) drawing of day-dance patterns of a
        type used on masks. Collection: George and Sarah Corbin, Corbin Negative
        1985.10.3.

 


5.

 

5.     Chachet Baining night-dance mask from Walmatki village representing the spirit of a
        pig. Collection: George and Sarah Corbin, Corbin Negative 1972.44.23.

 


6.

 

6.     Chachet Baining night-dance mask from Walmatki village representing the spirit of a
        hornbill. Collection: George and Sarah Corbin, Corbin Negative 1972.44.17.

 


7.

 

7.     Chachet Baining night-dance mask from Walmatki village representing the spirit of a
        bush bird. Collection: George and Sarah Corbin, Corbin Negative 1972.55.33.

 


8.

 

8.     Kairak Baining (Ivere village) night-dance mask framework. The mask represents the
        spirit of a tree-fork. Collection: The National Museum and Art Gallery, Boroko,
        Papua New Guinea. Corbin Negative 1982.62.19.

 


9.

 

9.     Kairak Baining (Malabunga village) night-dance mask representing the spirit of a
        domesticated cat. Collection: H. Gallasch, South Australia. Corbin Negative 1973.3.27.

 


10a.

 

10a. Kairak Baining (Ivere village?) composite night-mask representing the spirit
        of a tree-fork. Collection: H. Gallasch, South Australia. Corbin Negative 1973.10.26.

 


10b.

 

10b. Detail of painted bark cloth over bamboo tube in mask plate 10a. Corbin
        Negative 1973.10.29.