The masks created by the artists of the Islands of the Torres Strait are amongst the most rare and spectacular in the world. Scattered across the stretch of water that lies between Australia and New Guinea, the region has become known for its exceptional artistic output — despite having a population that, historically, has remained very small, at just a few thousand people.
When European explorers visited the Strait in the 1800s, they estimated its population at 4,000 — believing the area to have been inhabited for up to two millennia. Though they were amongst the first to carry out research in the area, however, they were by no means its first visitors: in 1605, two centuries previously, Spanish explorers Don Diego de Prado y Tova and Luìs Vaz de Torres began what would become a year’s expedition to the South Seas — Torres boldly naming his newly discovered Strait after himself.
Though little is known about the men’s journey, surviving texts provide some of the earliest insight into the area’s creative history, recording the discovery of an exceptional mask, its face crafted in turtleshell. For explorers of the 19th century, the region’s art proved to hold the same draw: frequently monumental in size, masks such as the one above were particularly captivating — their use in daily life and ceremony suggesting a function that transcended the purely decorative.
Mask, Saibai Island, Torres Strait of Queensland, Australia. Estimate: €750,000-1,200,000. To be offered in Art d’Afrique et d’Océanie on 3 December at Christie’s in Paris
One of the most frequent visitors to the area was Reverend Samuel McFarlane, a British missionary who first visited the Torres Islands on 1 July 1871, having travelled and written on the Loyalty Islands — today New Caledonia — several years previously. In the period that followed, he would return 23 times, visiting over 80 villages, establishing 12 ‘mission stations’, and learning six languages native to the region — publishing translations in two of them.
Though history may take a more complex view of McFarlane’s missions, the islanders of the Torres are said to have celebrated his arrival (and with it, the arrival of Christian gospel teachings), referring to the event as ‘The Coming of Light’ — still celebrated on 1 July each year. With each return voyage to London, McFarlane brought new writings as well as 224 objects and sculptures, given to The British Museum — just 37 of which came from the Islands of the Torres Strait, including this mask.
McFarlane’s discoveries would become incredibly important for the work of anthropologists such as Alfred Cort Haddon, the Cambridge academic whose work on the art and culture of the Islands of the Torres Strait was most extensive (publishing six volumes of studies between 1902 and 1935). During his career, Haddon would make three trips to the region, even returning in the midst of the First World War — a period in which research had otherwise ground to a halt.
For the Islands’ populations, he observed, the masks formed a visual intermediary between the spiritual and living world
If McFarlane recognised the exceptional rarity and form of the Torres Island masks, Haddon was keen to impress their profoundly spiritual significance — confirming, as previous explorers had suspected, that these were much more than decorative works. For the Islands’ populations, he observed, the masks formed a visual intermediary between the spiritual and living world: visually representing spirits or figures from mythology, they were an essential component of ceremonies intended to ensure fertility, rites of passage and funerals.
Like McFarlane, Haddon collected objects from the region — though did so because he believed the gradual influence of Christianity risked their destruction. McFarlane’s desire to catalogue and exhibit the works he returned to England with, however, did suggest an intention to preserve; outlining his donation to the British Museum in correspondence, McFarlane wrote that he was ‘dispatching to the BM a consignment of natural history, stone implements, carved spears and arrows etc. all from New Guinea.’
Of all of the masks that survive from the period from the Islands of the Torres Strait, this mask, from The Jolika Collection, has come to be recognised as one of the most significant. At 72cm high — almost three times the size of the human face — its proportions are imposing, two shell eyes glowing brightly from their setting. Unlike the example found in 1600, the mask is not made from turtleshell — as is more common — but has been carved from wood, suggesting it was made on the western island of Saibai. Situated at the mouth of the Fly River, near New Guinea, Saibai has long sculptural tradition in wood — with turtles less plentiful in the muddy Papuan waters.
Known as a mawa (which translates as face), masks such as these would have been used in the ceremony of the same name, held in September, which celebrated the ripening of the ubar fruit — a variety of wild plum — as well as yams, cassava and taro. Masked dancers wore outfits of coconut leaves, the ceremony held, not only to celebrate the harvest, but to ensure the soil’s future fertility. The absence of eyeholes suggests masks would have been worn on the top of the head — with a crescent shaped protrusion on the mask’s reverse suggesting it may also have been hung as an architectural ornament.
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