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Date: early 20th century
Medium:Wood, opercula, resin, seeds, and bark
Geographic Location:
Dimensions: Overall: 30 x 18 7/16 x 13 7/16 in. (76.2 x 46.83 x 34.13 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund
Object Number: 1975.11

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Masks like this one from northern New Ireland are worn during malagans, or funeral ceremonies, to represent “bush spirits,” or wild, chaotic supernatural forces of nature found outside the boundaries of village life.
While this mask, called a wanis (WAH-nis), has exaggerated human features, it is also covered with carvings of fish and snakes. Nature plays a key role in the lives and beliefs of the peoples of New Ireland, which is an island covered in dense tropical rain forests and subject to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and monsoons.



This mask is carved from wood. The hair and beard of the mask are made out of plant fibers. Wanis masks are generally made from only natural materials.
Wanis Masks
The peoples of New Ireland believe in the forces of ancestral and natural spirits. These spirits can be either helpful or harmful. Masks worn during important ceremonies often represent ancestors or natural forces. Wanis (WAH-nis) masks like this one are worn with costumes made from leaves. Together, the mask and leaves represent the uncultivated and untamed aspects of nature called “bush spirits.” The mask is meant to be wild, violent, and disturbing in its appearance. For the people of New Ireland, it represents the chaos that accompanies death.  When figures wearing this type of mask enter a community, it signals to people that a very important ceremony called a malagan is about to occur. 
Through its natural materials and the snake and fish figures which cover it, this mask shows the importance of nature to the peoples of New Ireland. New Ireland is an island covered by dense tropical rainforests and subject to earthquakes, monsoons, and other natural destructive forces. This landscape, and the animals that inhabit it, play important roles in the religious practices of people on New Ireland. In addition to fish and snakes, pigs and a variety of birds are also prominent in New Ireland’s beliefs and rituals. 
Funeral Practices in New Ireland
For the peoples of northern New Ireland, rituals for the dead include a funeral, a period of mourning, and an elaborate memorial festival known as a malagan. Before the malagan, special buildings are constructed, food is stockpiled to feed the guests, and a number of types of carvings are created. Because of its expense and extensive preparation, the malagan often occurs several months or years after the death, or deaths, of family members. The ceremony commemorates the deceased, helps their souls move from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and enhances the prestige of the family. 
The Pacific Islands
The islands of the Pacific, sometimes called Oceania, range in size from tiny specks of unnamed and uninhabited land to several of the largest islands in the world. Many of these islands lie along or near the equator and have a tropical or semi-tropical climate. The indigenous peoples of the Pacific islands came originally from the Asian mainland, arriving in successive waves over thousands of years and migrating gradually throughout the area. Though there are still places where traditional religions continue to be practiced, many Pacific islanders have converted to Islam or Christianity.
This wanis mask comes from the region known as Melanesia which encompasses New Guinea and the smaller islands east of it.


Encouraging Dialogue
1. This wanis mask is made out of natural materials like wood and bark. Why might these materials be important to its use or purpose?
2. In what ways does this mask resemble a person? In what ways is it different?
3. How could this mask relate to the world of nature in a place like New Ireland?
4. There are many components to the funerals of the people of North Ireland, including movement, dance, and song. Many objects, such as this mask and carvings, are also used for a variety of reasons and have a variety of significances. What are the various components and objects of funeral ceremonies in our culture. Why, for instance, do we commonly associate flowers with funerals? Why do people dress in their best clothes during funerals?
5. How can masks and costumes change the identities of their wearers? How can masks and costumes change how others perceive the wearer? Why might this be important during an important ceremony or religious ritual?
Making Connections
1. Compare this Wanis mask with the Tatanua mask. What similar materials were used to make each mask ? What role does each play in the funeral ceremonies of the peoples of New Ireland?
2. In order to better understand the setting of a malagan ritual, write a series of sensory details imagining you are at the ceremony. For instance: What do you hear? What do you see? How might you describe the atmosphere? Tip: View the video of the malagan ceremony included in these resources.
3. This wanis mask is made from natural materials which give it a sense of wildness and give life to the untamed “bush spirit” it represents. Choose a subject from nature and consider it carefully. Your subject could represent a quality or phenomenon of the natural world. Suggestions include a tornado, a quiet pond, or a wind storm. Make a work of art that represents this quality or phenomenon using only natural materials. What materials best serve your subject matter?



Embedded Video. Video will play once Saved.
Watch a video from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts of a malagan ceremony.
Reference Books:
Lincoln, Louise. Assemblage of Spirits: Idea and Image in New Ireland. New York: G. Braziller, in association with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1987.
New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific. Paris: Musée du quai Branly; Milan: 5 Continents, 2006.
Ritual Arts of Oceania, New Ireland in the Collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum. Milan: Skira; Genèva: Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1997.
Books for Students:
Gascoigne, Ingrid. Papua New Guinea (Cultures of the World, Second). New York: Benchmark Books, 2009.
Pelusey, Michael. Papua New Guinea and East Timor (Our Neighbors). New York: Nelson Thornes Macmillan Libra, 2007.
This timeline offers a brief history of New Ireland.
This entry describes another, different wanis mask.
This website discusses the history of New Guinea.





Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.


  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.


  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 


Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 


  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.


  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).


  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 


  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 


  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 




Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.


Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 


Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.


Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.


Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.


Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.


Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.


Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.


“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”