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New Britain TOC > Baining dances and bark cloth masks

Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to artifacts

Baining dances and bark cloth masks, East New Britain Province, PNG

[Baining fire dance mask with tapa cloth circular phallocrypt cover and long tapa tassel: 17k]

Baining "fire dances" and bark cloth masks are famous throughout Papua New Guinea. Three related Baining tribes live on the Gazelle Peninsula. (1)

Masks are made from bush material: bamboos and reeds for framework, bark cloth, tree sap and berries for dyes, vines for lashing, bird feathers and leaves for decoration. (2)

Figure 1: Night dance mask and phallocrypt with bark cloth tassel

Musical instruments include a bamboo tube pounded against a horizontal log, a small slit gong bamboo drum and a bamboo mouth harp.

Dances are either day or night dances. A day dance may be followed by a night dance or a night dance may be performed by itself. They are often put on for mission, cultural or tourist events. Many early coastal missions prohibited masked dancing, so dances are more common in isolated inland areas.

Feasts and dances are the only events that bring neighboring Baining together. Villages are small. There are no organizations such as men's clan houses. Construction of masks and food preparation for feasts requires at least two months of village effort. Villages invited as guests return the invitation later.

[Baining tapa dance mask: 11k]

Figure 2: Bark cloth mask with raffia skirt.

Asarai (asaraigi) day dance

A village elder sets the time and starts the work on the masks. Everyone is free to help or not. Men work on the masks at a bush shelter assisted by a special group of women. The first man to arrive at the work site in the morning throws in a stick to chase off any spirits (aios) lurking about. The men purify themselves at a nearby stream before coming home.

The elder's wife or other female relative coordinates song rehearsals which match each mask. New songs are composed. Some are local gossip. Others refer to a sequence of places and give the feel of a journey. Women make and dye grass skirts for themselves and for the men's dance costumes. They also prepare the food.

Everyday, the men pick up something on their way to the work site and leave it on a pile just outside the mask-making area called the "heap of the women." As they leave for the day, they pick up something near their work and leave it on a pile just inside the mask-making area, "the heap of the men."

On the day before the dance, women are invited to view the finished masks. They hack the two piles to bits with their bush knives. Then they untie the knots that symbolically held the masks in place until they were complete and ready for "play."

The action now moves from the bush to the village. Men bring in small pole masks before dawn and tie them to a framework for display. The women's chorus starts singing and continues until sundown. Another women's group, often carrying their children, dances in the plaza. They are joined by unmasked men.

Periodically, men leave, put on their masks and return to dance, sometimes for only a few minutes. They may leave again, discard the mask and rejoin the plaza dancers.

[Baining day dance tapa masks suspended from the rafters: 55k]

Figure 3: Three large day dance masks stored in the ceiling of a New Britain cultural center (akurikuruk, churukchruk). They are at least 12 feet (4 meters). This composite photo gives a hint of their height when danced.

Masks sequence for a day dance:

[detail of Baining barkcloth day dance masks: 20k]

The dance is closed with two special songs, one refers to the play of circling birds. This may be followed by a men's chorus and later the atut night dance.

Figure 4: Detail of day dance masks stored in rafters, some of the feathers and other dance decorations are still tied on to the left mask which is in the position it would be in when danced (akurikuruk, churukchruk).


Atut night dance

The "fire dance" can be performed on the day after a day dance or performed alone. Preparations are secret from outsiders. No women are allowed near the mask makers.

Huge bundles of firewood are collected and stacked in the dance area. Both men and women practice songs and dances all night the day before the dance.

[Baining fire dance barkcloth mask: 19k]

Figure 5: Large night dance mask with face painted on its barkcloth forehead (anguangi, atutki, ningum).

Night dance masks:

Atut dances are exciting and fun for the village. The chorus begins singing around sundown in a thatch shelter at the edge of the dance area. The singers open and close the dance. They provide a structured counterpoint to the wild movements of the dancers.

Men and boys start a big fire in the middle of the dance ground. Sometimes material from an old house is used. The masked dancers may be proceeded by unmasked male or female dancers, or a funny skit. They appear mysteriously at the edge of the fire's shadows.

[small barkcloth Baining fire dance mask: 16k]

Figure 6: Baining night dance mask made of bark cloth (tapa) with trefoil plant designs (avutik) over the eyes.

Each dancer enters alone to dance in front of the chorus for one complete verse of the song before moving on to dance in place at the edge of the fire circle. The chorus may draw a verse out as long as they want.

When all the dancers have entered, they began a wild, circling dance around the fire. Dancers run through the flames or kick at the coals to throw up big showers of sparks. A dancer may come and dance in front of the chorus, then go back to join the circle. They dance with only a few breaks until dawn.

Any bits of masks that break off are thrown into the fire. Men keep the fire burning brightly all night. Women do not go near it. Unruly children are threatened with being carried away by the atutki. Sometimes children are given to dancers to carry for awhile to scare them into better behavior.

Baining culture focuses on producing plentiful food. Extended family groups work their gardens and cocoa blocks. A child becomes a successful adult who can produce and exchange food, but then declines into old age dependency. Village social life is what differentiates people from untamed nature and bush spirits.

Gardens and mask-making areas are the in-between places where human work transforms raw materials from the bush into useful forms. The Baining say they perform their dances for fun or "play" (3). Dances are ritual play and only for adults who are strong enough to "play" with non-human forces without getting hurt.(from Fajans)


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