Mwai Spirit Mask (PM014)

Description of item:























































Mwai ceremonial spirit mask displaying a narrow, oblong face with gently elongated nose, wood, pigments, claystone inlaid with cowry (nassa) shells, boar tusks on both sides; good gallery condition, Korogo Village, Iatmul People, Middle Sepik; c. 1970’s.


Height: 46 cm (18 inches)

​Depth: 12 cm (4.7 inches)

​Width: 12 cm (4.7 inches)


The mwai (mwai, mwei or mai) masks of the Iatmul people are a combination of fibres, feathers and shells, the carved face being merely a peripheral feature. These masks portray clan ancestors in the form of brothers and sisters. The Iatmul say that the mwai originated from the north, in the Prince Alexander Mountains, from the region presently inhabited by the Abelam and Boiken. They get their name from the little nassa shells (mwai) with which it is usually decorated. The masks are attached to a profusely adorned conical mask frame worn during certain ceremonies by young men representing and bearing the names of pairs of clan ancestral brothers and sisters. Mwai masks are danced in pairs that represent these supernatural siblings. They also may bear the names of so-called ‘primal beings’ or spirits (such as Wolindambwi), who rank above the clan ancestors. Names are very sacred in Papua New Guinea and no one calls anyone by their name in fear of attracting bad spirits. However, during initiation, the elder wearing the mwai can call out the names without summoning the power of the name or bad spirits. The mwai masks are performed to celebrate yam and taro harvests and are worn by the owner’s sisters’ children. The ceremony is to ensure garden fertility.


Meyer, A.J.P., ‘Oceanic Art. Ozeanishe Kunst. Art Océanien’, (1995: plate 235).

​Craig, B. ‘Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes’, (2010: 206).

​​Wassmann, J. ‘The Song to the Flying Fox’, (1991: 161).

​​Hauser-Schäublin, B. ‘Mai-Masken der Iatmul, Papua New Guinea. Stil, Schnitzvorgang, Auftritt und Funktion’, (1977: 41).

​Kjellgren, E. ‘Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, (2007: 79).


Geoff Carey (New Guinea Gallery), Sydney, Australia.



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