Barkcloth and the Baining: Masks in New Britain

Post written by Inna Yaneva-Toraman, University of Edinburgh
Baining masks are one of the most famous artefacts of Papua New Guinean cultures. A tourist cannot visit the country without encountering these masks in one form or another. They are printed on tourism brochures and post stamps, used in various advertisements, and displayed at museums and art galleries. Made from white bark cloth, and painted with natural black and red dyes, these masks have become a symbol for Baining culture and society.

As a PhD student working on Baining masks, I am grateful to Chantal Knowles and Eve Haddow for inviting me to join them on their review of the collection of masks and headdresses from Papua New Guinea at the National Museum of Scotland stores.

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it's construction and style

Eve excitedly unpacking the mask so we can study it’s construction and style


During this visit we had a brief discussion on the use of new materials in the composition of masks made after European contact. The Baining mask at the museum stores, for instance, contained a layer of printed paper (probably pages from an old book) underneath the bark cloth, which seemed to stabilize the structure while at the same time keeping the mask as light as possible. When we compared the Baining mask with other Papua New Guinean masks made from bark cloth, we saw that there was a considerable difference in their weight. This led us into a discussion about the use of these masks and the characteristics of the dances for which they are made.

The Baining are a non-Austronesian speaking people, who live on the Gazelle Peninsula in northern portion of East New Britain. They are best known for their spectacular masked dances performed at night. The name “Baining” means “inland people” – bai as “to go inland” and nig or nig-nig as “wild, uncultivated area” (Corbin 1976). Therefore, it is assumed that the name originated among the Tolai people, who live along the Northeastern coasts of the peninsula.

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)

Mask from the Baining people, early 20th century (A.1968.736)


The mask at the museum is an example of the smaller Baining masks called Kavat, which are used in the Baining Fire dance. In the anthropological literature this dance is also known as the Baining Snake dance because it used to include snake handling (Bateson 1931/1932). The Kavat dances are the most vigorous and ecstatic performances at the Baining night dances. The dancers jump in and over a large bonfire, wave burning sticks in the air, and kick the embers to create waves of sparkles around themselves. A good Kavat performance is said to be the one that draws attention with its energetic moves, thus accounting for the need of lighter masks.
A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame

A view inside the mask showing the construction of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame


This particular Kavat mask had been made of a single layer of fine white bark cloth and thin flexible branches. In order to keep the mask light, it is possible that the Baining man who made it chose to use printed paper rather than an additional layer of bark cloth. This example shows that the characteristics of the dances for which these artefacts were/are made, can also tell us about why particular ‘innovations’ in mask making were incorporated into the mask designs. Similarly, by looking at the composition of specific artefacts, we can understand how they were used. In many Melanesian dance contexts, features such as light/heavy, bright/dark, shiny/matte, and high/low, play a significant role in the composition, display, and reproduction of social relationships (A. Strathern & M. Strathern 1971). Thus, by examining the structure and design of artefacts such as masks, we can also learn something about the people who have made them, and the meaning of particular qualities like lightness and heaviness.

Works Cited:
Bateson, G. (1931/1932). ‘Further Notes on a Snake Dance of the Baining’, Oceania, Vol.2, pp.334-341.
Corbin, G. (1976). ‘The Art of the Baining of New Britain’. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, (doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1976).
Strathern, A. & M. Strathern (1971). Self-decoration in Mount Hagen. London: Duckworth.

Material culture and missionary history on Aneityum island

This is the 4th post in a series fosussing on research in the Pacific around Vanuatu collections, acquired by Scottish missionaries who lived on the islands from the 1850s-1940s.

Following my time working in Port Vila, I travelled to Aneityum the southernmost island of Vanuatu. It is located closer to the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia than it is to many of the northern islands of the country. With a population of around 1000 people, it is relatively small with a close-knit community. The island is very green with no road network. The tourism industry there mainly comes from cruise ships who anchor in the bay on the south west coast, with the tourists travelling on small boats to Inyeug, or Mystery Island, a smaller island in the coral reef off Aneityum. It is on Mystery Island that our 12 seater plane landed before getting small boats over to the main village of Anelcauhaut.

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum

Inyeug, also known as Mystery Island, off the south west coast of Aneityum


Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island

Looking across to Anelcauhaut from Mystery island


Anelcauhaut is the location of the first Presbyterian church in Vanuatu, established in 1852. As I have detailed in previous posts, it was this connection with the history of Presbyterian missionaries that has led to Vanuatu material in Scottish museums. Both National Museums Scotland and Glasgowlife have material from Aneityum. These items came through Reverend James Hay Lawrie who was based on the island from 1879-96. Lawrie was at the mission station at Aname on the north of the island. I had taken photographs with me of the artefacts in Scotland and some copies of historical photos taken by Reverend Lawrie in the 1890s, most of which are in the Mitchell library in Sydney.
During my visit, I accompanied researchers from Australian National University who were running an archaeological fieldschool on the island. The team was led by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford who were working closely with Richard Shing an archaeologist from Aneityum. Fieldwork has been taking place on the island for several years. This year, the research sites included the old church and mission house at Anelcauhaut built by Reverend John Geddie. This Scottish born man was brought up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and he was responsible for setting up the first Presbyterian church. The excavations also centred around the area in which Geddie’s printing house was located, a burial site occupied by local and European 19th century graves, an area in which missionaries had buried old sacred or tabu stones, and an area of swamp.
The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut

The site of Reverend John Geddie’s house at Anelcauhaut


Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie's house

Inside the site of Reverend John Geddie’s house


The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum

The research team involved in the Australian National University archaeological fieldschool on Aneityum


Following our arrival, my first task was to meet Nelly Nepea Tamalea who is the female field worker on the island. The Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta have an excellent system whereby volunteers from each of the islands in the country work as fieldworkers doing their own research with the community and also assisting visiting researchers. The two fieldworkers for Aneityum are Frank and his sister Nelly. I met Nelly in Anelcauhaut village where she and two of her sisters were rolling pandanus leaves in preparation for making baskets. Unsurprisingly, my attempts to roll pandanus took a lot longer! Meanwhile, the women were tending to an earth oven where food was being prepared for a welcoming ceremony we were all shortly to attend with the council of chiefs. After receiving garlands of inpa leaves, a kastom leaf in Aneityum, we were introduced and talk turned to the work we would be doing this year. All research is carried out in conjunction with the community and no research is carried out that is not supported by them. This was my first opportunity to share some of the photographs I had brought with me. Everyone was really excited and interested to see what I had been able to bring. It was decided that I should do a presentation one evening that week using a projector to display the images on the outer wall of the local primary school. This was an opportunity for anyone to see the photos that could make it there. In the end, around 100 people were able to attend. The historical photos show scenes from around the island but also feature some named individuals including Numrang who was an ancestor of the local teacher who helped me with the projector. National Museums Scotland also care for a beautiful neck ornament of seaweed which incorporates human hair from Numrang’s beard which I was able to show the community.
Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum

Showing images of the collection in Scotland and Reverend JH Lawrie’s historical photos of Aneityum to the council of chiefs on Aneityum


Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum

Delivering a presentation to the community in Anelcauhaut, Aneityum


As there are no roads on Aneityum, everyone either travels by foot or by boat. I took a boat one day to the north of the island near Port Patrick. I wanted to go there not just to share the images with more people but also to see the mission station at Aname where Reverend John Inglis (from the Scottish borders) and subsequently Lawrie, had been based. As well as the missionary house there had been a church and teachers training college at Aname. Reverend Inglis arrived on Aneityum in 1852 representing the Scottish Presbyterian mission and he worked with Geddie. I found out that Inglis had originally built his house on top of the sacred meeting place, or nakamal , at Aname. This was a common practice for 19th century missionaries in Vanuatu as part of an infringement on local belief systems and their desire to exert influence over the local population. Still in situ where the entrance to the teachers training building would have been is a sacred stone which Inglis placed as a door step after it was given to him by some islanders who had converted to the new religion of Christianity. The stone is named Rangitafu and was apparently used to influence the sea and shipwrecks.
Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute

Rangitafu in situ at what would have been the entrance to the Teachers Training Institute in north Aneityum


Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie's historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie's mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum

Showing some of the artefacts in Scotland and Lawrie’s historical photos to Pastor Isaac and his uncle at the site of Lawrie’s mission house at Port Patrick (Aname), north Aneityum


I found that the 19th century photographs of the island were most recognisable to younger people on the island whereas because many of the artefacts are no longer made or used, they seemed more familiar to older people. For me, that made it feel even more important for the artefacts to be seen by the community and for them to have a record of some of the material held in museums elsewhere in the world. Jack Ketati who had been the first ni-Vanuatu curator at the cultural centre and who lives on the island was especially excited to see three dance clubs Reverend Lawrie donated to NMS in 1897. This includes one club in the form of a whale’s tail. He explained that the dances are still known and they are trying to revive the practice but that the knowledge of the style of the clubs has been lost. Having the photos of these 19th century clubs Jack told me that he would now be able to commission a carver on the island to work on the historical designs.