Painted mask (tapuanu), Caroline Islands


Painted mask (tapuanu) made of breadfruit wood, coconut fibre cord and natural pigments (lime and coal?), 19th century, Caroline Islands, from the Satawan Atoll, 65 x 36 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Painted mask (tapuanu) made of breadfruit wood, coconut fibre cord and natural pigments (lime and coal?), 19th century, Caroline Islands, from the Satawan Atoll, 65 x 36 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Masks are rare in Micronesia—traditionally they are only found in the Mortlock group of islands. This typical example is made of breadfruit wood painted white using lime and black using soot. The mask has narrow eye-slits, and a plaited coconut fibre cord for securing it to the wearer’s head.

Painted mask (tapuanu) made of breadfruit wood, coconut fibre cord and natural pigments (lime and coal?), 19th century, Caroline Islands, from the Satawan Atoll, 65 x 36 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Painted mask (tapuanu) made of breadfruit wood, coconut fibre cord and natural pigments (lime and coal?), 19th century, Caroline Islands, from the Satawan Atoll, 65 x 36 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Such masks represented an ancestor. They were used as ornaments in the ceremonial house and sometimes in boat houses. The ceremonial house was the location of performances by members of a secret society, in which the god of wind was appeased to protect the breadfruit crops from hurricanes and storms. The ceremony took place in March or April, and included dancing and feasting.

Satawan is an atoll of four main populated islands and 45 islets, covering a very small land area. The main island is called Satawan, with a population of around 1000 people. It is part of the Mortlock Islands (population 5,163 according to the 1994 census), which belong to the state of Chuuk (Truk). Chuuk is one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia created in 1986, an internally self-governing republic. The principal Japanese naval base was located in the Chuuk area during the Second World War; the lagoon still contains many wrecked ships and planes.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Painted mask (tapuanu), Caroline Islands," in Smarthistory, July 14, 2018, accessed July 25, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/painted-mask-tapanu-caroline-islands/.