Torres Strait Islander people
'Mask' 19th century
Torres Strait Islander art and culture are distinct from mainland Aboriginal Australia. The Indigenous people of this region have had long-term contact with their immediate neighbours to the north in Papua New Guinea and to the south in Cape York, and they have also undergone immense social, political, religious and environmental changes since contact with Europeans and Christianity in the 1800s. These changes are reflected in the cultural practices, material culture, art, language and visual iconography that originate from this region.
Whereas masks are rarely made by Aboriginal artists, they are one of the main features of the Islander artistic repertoire. This Mawa mask probably originated in the north-western part of the Torres Strait, possibly Saibai Island or even a nearby coastal village in Papua. The majority of Torres Strait Islander masks are used and worn during sacred and secular ceremonies, initiations, sorcery and other customary rituals. Historically, the performance of rituals is a critical factor in maintaining relationships with the spiritual realm and also was a way of competing with and challenging and provoking other clans within the region.
Nineteenth-century Torres Strait Islander objects are rarely found in Australian collections, largely due to the destruction of cultural material that occurred with the arrival of Christian missionaries. Nevertheless, there are a small number of similar wooden masks held in major public collections in Australia and overseas.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010