Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island

Though we lack an understanding of its use or cultural context, this turtle-shell mask was certainly precious.

Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island, mid- to late 19th century, turtle shell, wood, cassowary feathers, fiber, resin, shell, paint, 21-1/2 inches high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a fabulous mask that was made by people who lived on an island in the Torres Strait; this is a body of water between New Guinea and Australia that has hundreds of islands, most of which are uninhabited. This is from a particular island called the Mabuiag Island.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:24] What we have here is a turtle-shell mask divided into three registers. In the bottom, we have a human face; above it, the face and body of a bird; and above that, feathers.

Dr. Harris: [0:37] Now, it is only in the Torres Strait that we find masks made out of this very precious material of turtle shell.

Dr. Klemm: [0:45] In this particular case, we have a frigatebird depicted, and we have a face that has raffia attached to it as though it were hair; and in fact, in other examples, it really is human hair.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] What I notice is that we have a lot of pieces that have been stitched together. The piece that forms the face, three decorative pieces that surround that, we have a piece underneath, another piece in the back. Then the bird itself is made up of many pieces of turtle shell.

Dr. Klemm: [1:15] In addition to turtle shell, we also have feathers, and shell, and raffia that add to the texture and the materiality of this piece.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] Of course, this would only have been one part of an elaborate costume used in a masquerade.

Dr. Klemm: [1:31] It would have been seen in motion, in front of an audience, when it was actually used.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] Right. Music, those feathers on the top moving in the wind and the raffia that we see for the hair also moving. We’re seeing it in a very static way, which is very unnatural.

Dr. Klemm: [1:46] It’s likely the dancer was making the gestures of a bird.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] Who’s represented here? Art historians conjecture that perhaps this is the face of a hero, someone who lived in the past, but who did supernatural deeds, who’s being remembered here.

Dr. Klemm: [2:03] It could also be an ancestor. It could be an older person, because we have this lovely latticework around the sides of the face and the bottom which suggest a beard. Somebody important in your lineage who you would want to honor through this mask.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] Perhaps that person was associated with the frigatebird on the top of the mask, or perhaps the frigatebird was associated in some way with the wearer of the mask.

Dr. Klemm: [2:27] In that sense, the bird could be seen as a totem, that is, a mythological creature that connected to a particular lineage or a family. Maybe it was an animal that they didn’t hunt. Maybe it was an animal that they regarded as unique and special.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] This mask likely connected the wearer, connected the culture, to a supernatural, to something beyond the physical world.

Dr. Klemm: [2:54] We have to ask ourselves why the artist created it. Why did they spend so much time carving this, putting it together? We know turtle shell was actively traded and that European sailors in particular were interested in collecting turtle shell in the early 1800s.

[3:09] We know that by the late 1800s, the presence of missionaries had made this practice almost obsolete. In fact, they ask the Torres Strait Islanders to burn their masks, to destroy them. The only examples that we have today are in collections that anthropologists, ethnographers, sailors, missionaries, folks that were outsiders in the Torres Straits, might have collected.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] In the end, we’re not sure whether this dates to the late 19th century, after this area had been Christianized. We’re not sure if this is an object that was made for the people themselves or was made to be exported for tourists and collectors.

Dr. Klemm: [3:50] Because there are accounts of turtle shell masks in the Torres Straits, we assume that these were fairly important. They have a long history, a long tradition. We know from another account in the 1930s that they were kept in special houses of stone. It suggests that they were items that had prestige. I would love to know more about those circular pieces on the wings.

Dr. Harris: [4:13] They almost look like propellers. The whole sculpture, this whole mask gives me a feeling of flight and of upward movement.

Dr. Klemm: [4:21] While we may not be completely satisfied with understanding the cultural context of this piece, we can actually really appreciate it formally in this space.

[4:30] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 18, 2024,