Torres Strait Islander people, Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait, Australia
Turtle shell, wood, fiber, feathers, shell
W. 25 in. (63.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1967 (1978.412.1510)
The unique turtle-shell masks of the Torres Strait Islands that lie between Australia and New Guinea are among the most striking works of Oceanic art. Turtle-shell effigies were first recorded on the Torres Strait Islands by the Spanish explorer Don Diego de Prado y Tovar in 1606, a testimony to the antiquity of the tradition. Attributed to Mabuiag Island, this work displays the composite human and animal imagery typical of western Torres Strait masks.
Turtle-shell masks in the western Torres Strait reportedly were used during funerary ceremonies and increase rites (rituals designed to ensure bountiful harvests and an abundance of fish and game). The ceremonies often involved performances in which senior men, wearing the masks together with rustling costumes of grass, reenacted events from the lives of culture-heroes, drawn from local oral tradition. Worn over the head like a helmet, this work depicts a human face, possibly portraying one such culture-hero. It is surmounted by a frigate bird, perhaps representing his personal totemic species.