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.