Although Indonesia’s wayang topeng forms the link here between theatrical traditions in Asia and the masked rituals of Oceania, the idealised naturalism of the characters at the court of Janggala contrasts sharply with the abstraction and stylization favoured by sculptors from the Sepik River region and their neighbours. This distinction highlights the diverse approaches used to translate the invisible. Melanesia is the only place where masks are established as the medium for contact with the ancestors, leaving the secrecy of the men’s house to make fleeting appearances in the community. This ephemeral interference with reality is manifest in the materiality of the masks, which are often condemned to fall apart after a single use, as well as in the exuberant materials and colours used to embody spirits, ancestors, and other natural forces.


Yam Mask

Abelam / Papua New Guinea / Basketwork, red ochre, black and white pigments, cowry shells / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 72.1965.12.7

For the Abelam in the Sepik River region, yams are the main food-producing plant and form their basic diet. This tuber lies at the heart of a network of exchange and competition and is grown by initiated men who vie with each other to obtain the longest yam. The large yams are exhibited after harvesting and are decorated for the occasion with sculpted basketweave masks adorned with feathers, shells, snail shells, and brightly-coloured fruit. When worn during ceremonies, the masks link the yams to the ancestors of the clan. Exhibited in front of the men’s house, the yams all embody an ancestor whose name they bear.


Sepik, Papua New Guinea / Wood and red, ochre, white and black pigments / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1914.1.8

In the Sepik region, the haus tambaran, or ceremonial houses, shelter initiated men and spirits. This type of building is widespread in the various cultures of Oceania, but the ones found in the Middle Sepik are the most elaborate, in aesthetic terms. These houses are located in the centre of the village in the area reserved for ceremonies. The masks are architectural elements hung from the facades and the front gables of the houses. They represent the face of the primordial woman and the house, which can be up to 25 metres long and 18 metres high, symbolises her body. Slit drums, figurative hooks, and debating stools are kept downstairs while the sacred flutes and the skulls of ancestors and enemies are kept upstairs. Here, everything that belongs exclusively to men, i.e., to the public, cultural, and ceremonial sphere, is placed in a female body—the ceremonial house—which holds all the objects and knowledge reserved for men. The opposition between male and female is thus surpassed in a profound integration of the two sexes.

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Kavat Mask

Baining / Papua New Guinea / Tapa [bark cloth] painted red and black / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1973.86.1

In the mountainous regions of the Gazelle Peninsula, these spectacular masks dance during night-time ceremonies to inaugurate the initiation cycles of young boys. The making of the masks, hidden from the eyes of women, is an occasion to pass on the techniques involved and to teach the symbolism behind the painted motifs. Fern leaves and traces of birds, caterpillars, snakes, and spiders evoke the bush spirits. Constructed on a cane frame and featuring pigments of both plant and animal origin, the kavat mask is recognisable by the large round eyes painted in concentric circles on the beaten bark face and with a gaping mouth.

Wayang topeng Mask

Java, Indonesia / Nineteenth century / Painted wood / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1897.11.4

The inscription inside the mask leads us to believe that it is probably Prince Panji’s rival, Klana Sewandana, who competed with him for Princess Candra’s favours. These masks often have a moustache overhanging a faintly drawn mouth parted to show gold teeth, the privilege of the aristocracy. The mask’s princely nature is accentuated by a diadem composed of a myriad of ornamental motifs: scrolls, spirals, and foliate figures.


Hudoq Mask

Bahau-Busang / Kalimantan Timur (Borneo), Indonesia / Twentieth century / Light polychrome wood (industrial colours), cane / Formerly Barbier-Mueller Collection / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 70.2001.27.176

Hudoq takes shape in the Dayak communities of Borneo. The hudoq mask combines the sparkling polychromy of delicate arabesques with extremely stylised forms. This coloured, ornamental style is a product of the kenyah-kayan cultural network to which the Bahau-Busang belong. Composed of mixed elements that borrow from zoomorphic and anthropomorphic repertories to emphasise its ferociousness, hudoq aims both to frighten and reassure, inspiring a mixture of respect, pleasure, and fear. Hudoq mask-wearers dance to stimulate the fertility of the land and drive away evil forces that could harm its crops. They guarantee fertility and prosperity for the village lands and people, promising good harvests and many offspring.