Tatanua masks
from New Ireland
I do not have a Tauanua mask in my collection, I just love them and hope to have one some day.
I put this page together with some of my favorite examples of these masks and wanted to share it with others who might also be interested in them.
The images (a LOT of them) and information below are for reference purposes.

This type of mask was made in north and central New Ireland. It is known as tatanua, after the dance in which it is used. Though the masks are
superficially similar in appearance, there are many variations reflecting the wide range of associations and meanings which they have.

The upper part consists of a cane framework held together with string and covered with barkcloth, or in later examples, European textiles. It is
decorated to represent the hairstyle worn by young men as a mark of bereavement, in which the hair was partially shaved and coated with lime.
Tatanua masks are decorated differently on each side of the crest, using feathers, wool, shells, short wooden sticks or seeds. One side is often
coated with lime. The crest is of yellow or reddish brown fibre. The face, normally carved from lime wood (Alstonia), is decorated with black, white
and reddish brown pigment in an asymmetric design. Sometimes, as in this example, blue pigment is included - a European product (Reckitt's Blue)
used to enhance the whiteness of washing. The eyes are set with painted snail shell (Turbo petholatus) opercula, the ear lobes are elongated and
pierced, and the straight mouth is usually open, showing teeth.

The tatanua mask is worn by men in ceremonies to honour the dead. In 1907 Richard Parkinson published a description of a ceremony that he
witnessed on a visit to New Ireland. The masked dancers performed, accompanied by drumming, wearing garlands of leaves and a leaf garment
covering the lower body. Brenda Clay describes her observations of a performance by tatanua dancers in 1979. Men prepared the masks and the
performance away from women. The masks are preserved between performances, to be rented out by one of the few remaining skilled carvers.

Source: The British Museum
Height: 41 cm

Collected by Hugh Hastings Romilly
Gift of the Duke of Bedford

Ethno 1884,7-28.25

J. Mack (ed.), Masks: the art of expression (London, The British Museum Press, 1994), pp.
56-57, 75-76, fig. 30

B. Clay, 'A line of Tatanua' in L. Lincoln (ed.), Assemblage of spirits: idea and image in New
Ireland (New York and Minneapolis, George Braziller and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts,
1987), pp. 63-73

The British Museum
Tatanua mask wood, shells, vegetable fiber, and lime
17 x 7 1/2 x 12 1/2 (43.2 x 19.1 x 31.8 cm)
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
Tatanua Mask, New Ireland
H: 41 cm – 16”
Provenance : Brooklyn Museum, New York
Carlebach Gallery, New York, 1940’s

Published : Hurst Gallery, Arts and Artefacts of Melanesia, 1992, Cover illustration

Tatanua mask, Malanggan culture, New Ireland,
Melanesia, 20th century. Carved and painted wood,
dyed fiber, yarn, tin disks, and glass.
Gift of Henri Gaillard

www.museumca.org/slideshow/ ethno/slides6.html
Nouvelle - Irlande
masque tatanua
46 000 Francs / 7 012 Euros

en collaboration avec l'étude  
Loiseau - Schmitz-Digard

Liverpool Museum
Mask made from wood, vegetable fibre, barkcloth, opercula of sea snails, feathers, pigment, and a European shoe- or clothes-brush in
northern New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. 50 cms high. Donated to the Museum in 1899.

This mask was probably made in the mid-to-late 1880s. Such crested masks are known as tatanua. According to early accounts, they
were representations of the spirit or soul (tanua) of dead people. Today this idea is rejected by New Irelanders, who say that tatanua
masks are representations, portraits even, of living individuals. As with many art forms around the world, it seems tatanua were
designed to portray the locally conceived criteria of human, in this case, manly beauty. So this mask, like the other tatanua preserved
in museum collections, is characterized by an elaborate coiffure, a wide, projecting nose, pierced and distended earlobes, side
whiskers, a big mouth, and sound teeth. The tatanua were worn in public dances in which groups or lines of men were disguised by
the masks and garlands of leaves and foliage reaching to their knees. Unlike other known tatanua masks, however, this one is
distinguished by the fact that the artist has incorporated a shoe brush into the construction. It is placed on the right temple in the
position where a group of dried or chewed pandanus seeds would normally have been embedded in a matrix of resin. The brush may
have been found or pilfered. What seems clear is that the artist noticed the similarities between the bristles on a brush and the bristles
of a group of dried or chewed pandanus seeds and used it as a ready-made substitute.

This mask is not by any means the only New Ireland mask to show evidence of recycling. Others incorporate fragments of mirrors and
strips of cloth in place of barkcloth. Given that the mask may be a portrait, one can speculate that the presence of the brush may
indicate that the person portrayed had contacts with Europeans and perhaps was regarded as being part Western. Caption by
Michael C. Gunn. (1899.62.405).

Pitt Rivers Museum
A mask that was auctioned off at Arte Primivito - Sold for $5250

Description: A good, old carved wood mask having a fierce face with wide, open mouth,
large, hooked nose beneath intense, button eyes with open irises. Remnants of painted
design on face of black and red leaf motif with traces of white. Four vertical bars cage the
face, attach to the projecting horns on the cheeks and curve at the top where they meet the
high, horned ears. Numerous chips, a few repaired breaks and minor losses, but basically
all there and considerable aged. On old wood base.  
Provenance: Ex. collection of Jean Tindall Cohen, acquired 40 years ago.
Helmet Mask

Late 19th century

Wood, paint, opercula shells, lime plaster, plant fiber, bark, bark cloth, rattan, and cord

Museum of Fine Arts Houston
A Tatanua Mask, Nouvelle-Irlande
Sold for €72,850
June 2003
Christis's Paris
Tatanua mask, New Ireland
Wood, pigments, raffia and shells
19th century; H 43,5 cm
German collection

African and Oceanic Art
November 11, 2004

Lot 17, Dance Headdress, New Ireland, 17 3/4 inches long

Lot 17 is a dance headdress from New Ireland that is 17 3/4 inches long. "This impressive mask," the
catalogue maintained, "is a particularly fine example with thoughtful execution of proportions, surface
and detail. The malangan tatanua masks are danced in ceremonies to honor the dead."

tatanua, of overall helmet-shaped form, the square, openwork mask with jutting, parted lips, broad
nose and eyes inserted with snail opercula (turbo petholatus) framed by pendant lobes with a
dramatically arching fiber coiffure supported by a rattan frame and decorated with lime on one side and
variegated fiber rows on the other; varied aged surface with red, black and white pigment.

length 17 3/4in. 45.1cm

Estimate:$ 8,000 - $ 12,000  
Price Realized:$ 24,000

This impressive mask is a particulary fine example with thoughtful execution of proportions, surface,
and detail. The malangan tatanua masks are danced in ceremonies to honor the dead. Accompanied
by the tempo of drums, boards and bamboo sticks, the male dancers either paired off or lined up to
dance the masks in public. An homage to male beauty, the masks depict elaborate coiffures, wide,
prominent noses, pierced earlobes and a broad mouth with healthy teeth. See Gunn (1997: 146) for a
more detailed description of the ceremony as transcribed from the German anthropologist Robert
Parkinson's first-hand account from around 1900.
Christie's - Paris
Collection Patrice Trigano Itinéraire d'une passion
Auction Date : Jul 5, 2005


Nouvelle Irlande
Le petit visage aux traits stylisés, la bouche ouverte, les narines et les yeux percés, ces derniers incrustés
d'opercule de turbo, les longs lobes d'oreilles ajourés, le tout recouvert de motifs géométriques de couleur
rouge, bleu, noir et blanc, la coiffe avec une crête centrale en fibres végétales, un côté recouvert de craie
blanche, l'autre de tissus rouge foncé. Restes de tissus et de costume. Ancien numéro d'inventaire 69207.
Hauteur: 44 cm.

Estimate:€ 8,000 - € 12,000
Price Realized:€ 28,800 / $ 34,699    

H.J. Parkinson
Museum für Vølkerkunde, Vienne, 1903
Karl Handler, Perchtoldsdorf
Alain Schoffel, Paris, acquis auprès de celui-ci vers 1970

Ce masque fait parti d'un group de dix masques de Nouvelle Irlande offert en 1903 au Musée für Völkerkunde
de Vienne par H.J. Parkinson.
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004


tatanua, of overall helmet-shaped form, the openwork mask with jutting lips, broad nose and
eyes inserted with snail opercula (turbo petholatus) carved in high relief above pierced
eyeholes framed by pendant lobes with a dramatically arching fiber coiffure supported by a
rattan frame and decorated with lime on one side and a lizard depicted on the other; varied,
aged surface with red, black and white pigment.

length 18in. 45.8cm

Estimate:$ 8,000 - $ 12,000  
Price Realized: $ 16,800


Reportedly collected circa 1840, from the Convent, IALK (according to an old label with the
piece, no longer extant)
J. J. Klejman, New York
James Johnson Sweeney, New York
Sotheby's New York, November 18, 1986, lot 25
Christie's - New York
The C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection: Important European Furniture, Antiquities and
Asian Works of Art
Auction Date : Oct 20, 2004


The pierced red, black and white painted face with inset operculae eyes and pierced long ear
lobes, surmounted by an extensive headdress with plastered red fabric to one side, and twisted
fibres strands on a red fabric to the other, centered by a fibre crest, on a later rectangular
stained wood base with support, restored breaks and losses to the mask
17 in. (43 cm.) high, 15 in. (38 cm.) deep, the mask

Estimate:$ 6,000 - $ 8,000  
Price Realized:$ 13,145


The mask of white-painted pierced wood with operculae eyes and long pierced ear lobes,
surmounted by the elaborate headdress with chalk plaster to one and fibres to the other side,
surmounted by a fibre crest, on a later stained rectangular base with support
18 1/2 in. (47 cm.) high, 17 1/2 in. (44 cm.) deep, the mask

Estimate:$ 6,000 - $ 8,000  
Price Realized:$ 13,145
Sotheby's - Paris
Art Africain et Océanien,
Auction Date : Jun 15, 2004


La face étroite constitue le seul élément sculpté de ce masque. Il est surmonté d'une coiffe volumineuse, montée sur
une armature de branches souples, les côtés faits d'une étoffe d'écorce battue, le sommet orné d'une longue crête
de fibres végétales teintes. Le visage, très expressif, montre des yeux réalistes incrustés d'opercules de coquillage
turbo et un nez épaté aux narines évidées. La surface est peinte, avec en particulier, autour des yeux, des aplats de
bleu de lessive. Le bois est clair et léger. Très bon état de conservation.

haut. 32 cm

Estimate:€ 4,000 - € 7,000
Price Realized:€ 9,600 / $ 11,566

Rieser, Londres, 1961

Les masques tatanua interviennent dans le cadre des cycles malangan, systèmes de rites mortuaires pour la
délivrance des âmes. La coiffure rappelle celle des deuilleurs dont la coutume voulait qu'ils se rasent les côtés du
Sotheby's - Paris
Art Africain et Océanien, African and Oceanic Sale
Auction Date : Dec 5, 2003


associant la sculpture à un décor rapporté, modelé, gravé et peint. Il se distingue
par la composition très serrée du visage et de son décor peint, avec des yeux très
réalistes faits d'opercules de coquillage turbo et une bouche entrouverte projetée
en avant. A ce petit visage répond un très imposant cimier chevelu, fait de fibres
végétales teintées d'ocres variées, selon des lignes courbes et en volutes. Le côté
gauche est formé d'une composition en chaux, également traité en volutes. Très
bon état de conservation.

haut. 30 cm, prof. 30 cm

Estimate:€ 10,000 - € 15,000
Price Realized:€ 23,875 / $ 28,765    


L Bretschneider, Munich, 1961
Sotheby's - New York
African and Oceanic Art
Auction Date : Nov 16, 2001

Lot 195 :  A New Ireland Tatanua mask

A New Ireland Tatanua mask composed of a wood face carved in openwork form with an
aggressive expression, the eyes inset with shell and supporting an immense headdress of
red and blue tradecloth alternating with areas of white chalk and inset tufts to form a swirling
motif on one side and the remains of plant fiber overlaying blue tradecloth on the other, with
a medial crest of fiber issuing from the top of the head; encrusted patina with red, blue, white
and black finely drawn motifs. height 15 1/2 in. (39.4cm.) Cf. Gunn (1997: figures 41-43) and
Helfrich (1973: figures 18a, 27, 28, and 32) for closely related examples. As Gunn (1997:
146) states (citing Parkinson 1907), the tatanua masks are dance masks, created to portray
the classic form of manly beauty. These attributes include the elaborate coiffure, the wide,
projecting nose, pierced earlobes, whiskers rubbed with lime, and a big mouth with a sound
set of teeth. The masks were danced in public both in pairs and in lines of men. They
performed in erotic dances which were part of the celebrations to honor the dead. The
dancers were accompanied by an orchestra of wood drums, boards and bamboo sticks, and
acted out a narrative story.

height 15 1/2 in. (39.4

Estimate: $ 7,000 - $ 10,000  
Price Realized: $ 4,200
Additional information on these masks

There are several categories of masks used in the malagan. The tatanua mask represents the spirits of the dead
who are believed to attend the ceremonies and participate in the dances. Villagers clearly associated the different
tatanua masks with specific deceased relatives and believed the mask wearers to be the reappearance of the
spirit of that individual. In the past the tatanua ceremony was an exclusive male ritual complex and took place in
the men's enclosure.

Some of the tatanuas are displays of the “ideal male”, that is, male power and capabilities; others are “portraits” of
specific deceased. The placement of the shell [opercula] eyes is an occasion for ceremony and it is at this
moment that the spirit is believed to enter the mask. Tatanua dancers performed line dances rather than the
individual dances that were typical for other kinds of masked dancers. Their movements imitated birds and/or
snakes. The dancer, who wore a short grass costume, re-enacted the activities of an ancestor, sometimes in a
comic manner. The crest represents the style of hair once worn by male ancestors. The tatanuas were not
destroyed after the malagan festival, unlike most of the other art objects created for this ceremonial display.

While the individual elements that make up a particular piece can be identified, the meaning of the piece as a
whole changes when the various elements are combined. The interpretation of the person who commissioned the
piece may vary from that of other viewers and, indeed, there can be as many interpretations of the piece as there
are viewers. The elements used in each piece were chosen by the person who commissioned the piece and were
dictated by his knowledge of the relative to be commemorated.

Source: Utah Museum of Fine Arts
Rand African Art
home page