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Images from The Beede Gallery

Trumpet Mask (Vurbracha), Baining People, Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain
Papua New Guinea, Mid-20th Century

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NMM 2323.  Trumpet mask by Baining people, Gazelle peninsula, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, mid-20th century

NMM 2323. Trumpet mask (vurbracha), Baining people, Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, mid-20th century. Constructed from a wicker frame, bamboo tube, and rattan laces, the mask is covered over its entirety with a paper-thin bark. Although this artifact is not actually a musical instrument, dancers can vocalize through the long bamboo tube. Part of an elaborate dance costume, the vurbracha is worn during the night-time dances (or fire dances) that celebrate the male activity of hunting. The face depicts the spirit of an owl or other animal of the bush. Made of perishable materials, these masks are usually discarded after being used only once in the dance, reflecting a cycle of life and death. Length: 335 cm (about 132"). Board of Trustees, 1977.

The frame of the mask is made from a pliable material, most likely wicker or qoarinka-wood, which is bent to form a flat face with a protruding, open beak. The entire structure is covered with a thin, paper-like bark. The black pigment used to decorate the mask is made from the sap of the keineji tree, while the red pigment can be made from the sap of any number of different trees. One end of a bamboo tube is inserted into the open mouth of the mask and extends outward.

The Baining, an indigenous people who inhabit the northeastern tip of New Britain, observe both day-time and night-time dances to celebrate births, marriages, harvests, and other special occasions. The dances performed at these elaborate celebrations serve two purposes. On an earthly level, they provide communities a chance to socialize, share food, and establish partnerships. On a spiritual level, they recognize the connection to the spiritual world that is such an important part of Baining life. Preparations for these celebrations, including the making of masks, often last for several months.

This specific type of mask is referred to as the cobweb mask, which relates to the Baining's view that the spider is an evil animal that wants to kill everybody. The vurbracha mask imitates the spider's house and reflects, in its construction, the details and variety of spider's webs found in the jungle. Cobweb masks are used to open and close the night-time or fire dances, which celebrate the male-only activity of hunting (a reciprocal day-time dance celebrates the female activities of gathering and gardening). Cobweb masks are constructed by initiated males in a location deemed taboo for women to visit. This mask, like other Baining dance masks, is made of perishable materials and is usually discarded and left to decay after being used in the ceremonial dance. This is yet another example of the concept of duality in Baining thought: the mask itself reflects the cycle of life (creation and use of the mask in the ceremony) and death (throwing the mask away after the ceremony).

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