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Date: early 20th century
Medium:Wood, paint, opercula, shell, and cloth
Geographic Location:
Dimensions: Overall: 17 3/4 x 7 9/16 x 14 7/8 in. (45.085 x 19.21 x 37.78 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund
Object Number: 1975.8

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The funeral practices of the peoples of northern New Ireland involve a series of ceremonies culminating in an elaborate memorial festival called a malagan. Helmet masks like this one, called a tatanua, are worn during dance performances in malagans. These performances reinstate order in the society after the chaos of death, enhance the prestige of the family of the bereaved, and assist the souls of the deceased as they move from the world of the living to the world of the dead.
The term tatanua is used to both refer to the mask and the dance during which it is worn. During the dance, a line of masked male dancers move in unison to the voices of a male chorus. When the ceremony is completed correctly, the community is assured that ancestral spirits have approved and that men of the community will continue to be vigorous and successful.



This mask is made from wood, paint, opercula (snail shells), shell, and cloth. The two sides of a tatanua mask are often decorated differently in order to enhance the drama and visual interest of the ritual performance.
Tatanua Masks
Tatanua masks like this one are worn during ritual performances. The masks are commissioned by individual families, but sculptors are given a great deal of creative freedom. For this reason, the visual details and motifs of tatanua masks vary greatly.
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.
This mask, or tatanua, was worn during a ritual performance (also known as a tatanua) which took place during the malagan ceremony. During this performance, a line of male dancers, moving in unison, turns first to one side, then the other, and then to the audience. The dancers must remain silent or they risk death for themselves or for family members. Music for the tatanua dance is provided by a male chorus.
Performing the ceremony correctly is very important. If the ceremony is performed correctly, the community is assured that the ancestral spirits have approved and the disorder of death has been overcome.   Additionally, males in the community will continue to be vigorous and successful.
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 the 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 tatanua mask comes from the region known as Melanesia which encompasses New Guinea and the smaller islands east of it.



Encouraging Dialogue
1. What words would you use to describe this mask?
2. What parts of this mask grab your attention or stand out to you? Why these parts? The visual aspects of the masks as well as the movement and sound during the tatanua performance added to the drama of the ceremony.  
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. How are important public figures mourned in our society? How do we choose which public figures merit large public funerals? What does this say about the priorities or values of our society?
Making Connections
1. Compare the Tatanua mask with the Wanis 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. Watch the video of the tatanua ritual and the video of the Egungun masquerade of the Yoruba peoples. How are the ceremonies similar and how are they different ? Consider the purpose of these ceremonies. What does each say about the role of ancestors in the lives of the living?
3. 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.
4. This mask was worn during a performance that brought order to society following the chaos associated with death. Think about what order and chaos mean to you, and create a visual metaphor for each of these concepts. Your visual creations may realistic or abstract, and they may be created in two dimensions or in three dimensions.  Share your work with the class and be specific about how the concepts of order and chaos take form in your artworks. 


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 entry from the British Museum describes another tatanua mask.
This entry from the Indianapolis Museum of Art shows another tatanua mask.
This timeline offers a brief history of New Ireland.
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”