Todelo, Ohio. A masterwork of Oceanic art has been added to the collection at the Toledo Museum of Art. Purchased at Christie’s in Paris on Dec. 3, 2015, the mask is one of four known distinguished examples from Saibai Island in the Torres Straits and has been heralded by scholars as the most notable. The Saibai Island Masks are among the rarest and most spectacular works of art created by the artists of the Torres Straits.
The earliest written record of a Saibai Island mask was in 1606 when Spanish explorer Don Diego de Prado y Tovar wrote of a turtle shell example while on exploration voyage with Luís Vaz de Torres, for whom the region is named.
Masks in this style are called “mawa,” meaning “face,” and are believed to represent mythical heroes whose appearances signal important events and rites of passage. The “mawa” ceremony was held to celebrate the ripening of fruits and other crops around the month of September. The masks were carved from wood and distinct because they do not have sight apertures for the wearer, meaning that they were likely worn on the top of the head by a dancer wearing a costume of coconut leaves. They could also have been used as a kind of architectural ornament. There are only three other examples in this style, two in the Australian Museum in Sydney and one in Barbier Mueller Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.
Dr. Brian Kennedy, president, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, commented that “This is an extraordinary, spectacular example of the sculptural tradition of mask making in the Torres Strait Islands. We have rarely seen such a striking and memorable mask. We are thrilled to have acquired an object of such rarity which expands the global range of the Toledo Museum of Art’s celebrated art collections.”
This example, from the Jolika Collection, demonstrates the powerful proportions used in Torres Strait Islander art. It is revered as the best and most remarkable example of an extremely rare body of Torres Strait art. The mask measures almost three times the size of a human face and the trapezoidal shape combined with shell eyes glowing against the dark brown wood create a haunting expression and make this one of the most memorable among masks from the South Seas.
Wooden masks in the Torres Straits are particular to the Western island of Saibai, unlike the more typical turtle shell masks of the South Seas. This is attributed to the proximity of Saibai Island to the sculptural wood tradition of New Guinea.
About the artists of the Torres Straits
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have the oldest continuous culture in the world, with a legacy of tens of thousands of years. Their art is often referred to as the oldest in human history.
What began as rock carving and body painting evolved to ritual and ceremonial objects carved from wood to modern art forms today such as ceramics and glassware.
The story behind individual works of indigenous art is often a direct tie to a sacred ceremony, historical traditions and geographic landscape. Works of art show the cultural diversity among communities, differences in language and what material resources were available for making objects.