Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Mask (Mai)

19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik River
Wood, pigment, shell
H. 11 11/16 x W. 3 1/2 in. (29.7 x 8.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1974
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
The distinctive mai masks of the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik region are characterized by oblong faces with elongated noses that often merge into arch-like forms that join the nose to the chin or extend below it. Mai masks are carved and danced in pairs, portraying elder and younger supernatural siblings, either brothers or sisters. Worn by young men and boys, the masks are attached to conical basketry costumes that cover the dancer’s head and upper body. Mai mask performances begin with the construction of a fenced compound. Within it, the men build a raised platform, with a backdrop depicting the mountains where, according to oral tradition, the masks originated, and a ramp that extends over the wall to the ground outside. As the performance begins, the mai maskers burst from behind the backdrop and stride down the ramp. Reaching the ground outside, they are joined by the women, who accompany them to the dancing ground, where a lengthy performance ensues before the dancers finally retire into the men’s ceremonial house.
Dr. Robert MacLennan, Lyons, France, 1964–1974

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