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African & Oceanic Art / Magnificent Elema Mask, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea

Lot 7
Magnificent Elema Mask, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea
27 April 2022, 10:00 EDT
New York

Sold for US$38,175 inc. premium

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Magnificent Elema Mask, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea

Tapa, plant fiber frame, pigments, chicken feathers (Gallus gallus domesticus)
Height 58 3/8in (148.3cm)

Field collected by an Australian living in Townsville in the 1930s
Wayne Heathcote, Brussels/New York/London
Important Private Collection, acquired from the above in 1995

Douglas Newton notes, 'It has often been said that "style" in the visual arts is manifested by discernible congruities between the works of an individual artist, of a region, or even a number of regions during a particular historical period, detectable by comparing very direct likeness of visual elements. On these grounds, we can speak of a special style that is characteristic of art in the Gulf of Papua region of Papua New Guinea. There are people of several cultures living around the Gulf (although most of the cultural traditions disappeared over half a century ago), and details of their art vary markedly. [. . .]

[. . .] The easterners inhabit about 160 kilometers of the coast. The Motu people, who live still further east, call all these groups "Elema," and this name has been adopted by linguists and anthropologists. They comprise about a dozen separate groups, in total about 35,000 people, all of whom speak mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. [. . .]

[. . .] Elema masks are constructed of cane frames covered in barkcloth. There are three principal types; the simple conical kovave, used at the initiation of boys; eharo, or totemic dance masks, worn by visitors from other villages who come in great numbers to celebrate festivals; and hevehe or semese, impersonating spirits who have come from the sea. If kovave and hevehe are standardized, the eharo appear in a staggering wealth of imagery. They are also conical, with a face at the bottom, but are surmounted with figures of the creatures of nature, including plants, and even comic characters.' (Arts of the South Seas: The Collections of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Prestel, 1999, p. 226.)

As is the case in the mask presented here, Eharo "masks show great vitality, originality and diversity in form, shape and scale, with abstracted and stylised facial features. They have a great presence, power and dynamism lying latent in their wide staring eyes, gaping mouths and sharp teeth. They are reasonably light-weight, which meant they could be worn for long periods by physically active performers, although the wearer's vision would have been extremely limited." (National Museums Scotland, WEB, nd)

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