Papua New Guinea: National Mask Festival in East New Britain
Mysterious and feared Duk-Duk, Kinavai ceremony, impressively dressed dancers from West New Britain, New Ireland and other provinces of Papua New Guinea with their elaborate ancestral and spirit masks and traditional colourful attire, the National Mask Festival taking place on the beautiful volcanic shores of East New Britain province is a fascinating event.
Papua New Guinea festivals: East New Britain Province
“We must be approaching Rabaul,” I guess when I saw through the window the active Tavurvur volcano puffing steadily in the distance. Soon, I can see the beautiful volcanic shores of East New Britain. This island province of Papua New Guinea is the location of the annual National Mask & Warwagira Festival, and this is where I am heading.
The festival starts at dawn on the beach with the Kinavai ceremony, when the mysterious and feared Dukduk (Duk-Duk) and Tubuan (Tumbuan) arrive on canoes from their villages accompanied by chanting and beating of drums. Kinavai ceremony is spiritually important for the local Tolai people, who migrated to East New Britain from Namatanai in New Ireland. The ceremony signifies their landing on the shores of East New Britain. Unfortunately, I missed the ceremony due to work constraints.
My plane lands shortly after the Kinavai ceremony, and after a quick check-in I rush to the showground. But it’s still quite as the performance didn’t start yet. Impressively looking men in red laplap, standing out from the crowd, are leisurely walking around the grass-built huts selling refreshments, food, and craft. These men are from the Tumbuan, a Duk-Duk secret society, which is part of the traditional culture of the Tolai people. For the occasion of the ritual dances, they invoke the male spirit Duk-Duk and female spirit Tumbuan, depending on the masks they wear. Although some dancers act as female spirits, the dances are only performed by men.
While waiting for the festival to start, I am roaming around the showgrounds and chatting with friendly locals with betel nut stained red mouths. Soon, the commotion starts announcing the arrival of the first dancers. The National Mask Festival has a programme but it seems that it’s barely followed. The dancing groups start their performance as soon as they arrive from their remote villages.
Soon, the showground becomes crowded with the dancers wearing colourful traditional attire, intricately decorated masks and spectacular headdresses. The dances are accompanied by the beating of kundu, lizard-skin drums commonly used in Papua New Guinea. Each tribe has its own unique dancing style, music, traditional costumes, and bilas, or body decoration in local Pidgin language. It seems that the imagination in Papua New Guinea has no limits.
Amongst colourfully dressed dancers, the iconic Tumbuan emerge with their famous conical masks. Both male Duk-Duk and female Tumbuan masks are cone-shaped but Duk-Duk ones are taller. With the round balls of grass leaves under the masks, only legs of the dancers are visible.
Duk-Duk and Tumbuan dances are accompanied by a boisterous drum music.
Traditionally, women and girls were forbidden to even look at Duk-Duk and Tumbuan. Although the festival is now a public event, many rituals, including the young boys’ initiation ceremony, are strictly reserved to men. In the Tolai society every boy must undergo the initiation process to become a man and to be able to be part of the Tumbuan society and own a Tumbuan. Today, even though the women can see Duk-Duk and Tumbuan, it’s still taboo for them to stand nearby. When they land on the beach during the Kinavai ceremony, women and girls must stay a safe distance away from the dancing Tumbuan and Duk-Duk.
In the past, with the absence of judges and courts, Duk-Duk acted as law enforcers. They collected fines in the form of strings of shell money from law offenders and arranged all tribal matters. Duk-Duk’s judgment and actions were considered unquestionable. With their unlimited power, they were allowed to resort to some extreme measures such as burning down houses of those refusing to pay fines. Even in today’s modern world, Duk-Duk still reinforce law and order, and they are highly respected in the Tolai society.
All of a sudden, Tolai men in red laplap start the ritual whipping of Duk-Duk. The cracking sounds of whips make the crowd flinch with every strike. This ritual demonstrates Tolai men’s ability to control the wild and feared Tumbuan showing their power and ensure them respect.
Originally focused on the mask culture of East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea and their famous Duk-Duk and Baining masks, the National Mask & Warwagira Festival has expanded to include impressively dressed dancers from other provinces, in particular, from West New Britain and New Ireland. Their costumes and elaborate ancestral and spirit masks vary in style, size, and meaning and represent their unique cultural identity.
It’s a midday, and the sun is strong and light is too harsh, and everything looks flat. But one cannot choose the timing of the festival, and I am trying to use different techniques to make the best out of it.
The dances of Kusare warriors from Kandrian district of West New Britain are particularly impressive. Dancing and holding their stunning shields aloft, all the sudden split into two groups before they start charging at each other. With their loud war cries, which may scare onlookers, I have a feeling being in the middle of a tribal fight.
Some men, with a pair of pig tusks through nose, are particularly impressive.
Kusare dance is followed by different dance groups, each wearing distinctive masks and traditional attire, including some men dressed in costumes entirely made from grass.
The creativity of some dancers has no limits, and dusty brushes become handy.
The dances are accompanied by drum music played by some cheerful locals.
Duk-Duk make their frequent appearance on the showground.
National Mask Festival is also an opportunity to see the rare Baining day dances dedicated to female fertility and gardening. After the dance, the masks are traditionally discarded and left to decay in the jungle. I am wondering if this tradition is still alive.
Despite being male-dominated, women also participate in the festival.
All of a sudden, the famous Mudmen appear on the showground causing a stir in the crowd. Covered with mud from head to toe, with heavy mud masks on their heads, and bows and arrows in their hands, they move stealthily and silently into the crowd making adults back away and children hide behind their parents’ backs. These tribesmen, coming from Asaro, the area outside the town of Goroka in Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, are always popular at the festivals throughout the country.
Another highlight of the National Mask & Warwagira Festival is the captivating Baining Fire Dances performed in a few villages in the nearby Baining mountains. At night, the initiated young men, wearing huge painted masks almost the size of their bodies, run barefoot through a huge bonfire. They dance throughout the whole night, through flames, on fire until it dies out without their feet getting burnt.
The next day sees many dance groups, who performed the day before. But there are also some newcomers. Luckily, they are performing in the afternoon, when the light conditions are much better.
After several hours spent each day on the showground, I am struggling with the sticky heat and scorching sun but the dancers don’t stop, and I continue to shoot. With my hands all wet, and sweat drops falling from the forehead, I start seriously fearing for my camera. But the trusty camera doesn’t fail to capture the unique mask culture of Papua New Guinea.
The Mask Festival, initially introduced in 1995, is now over. It’s time to have a look at local crafts and artefacts sold in numerous grass-built huts and make some purchases at the local market. The market stalls are run mostly by women dressed in colourful typical Papua New Guinean loose blouses and selling sweet local mangoes, pineapples, baked sweet potatoes and taro, smoked fish wrapped in banana leaves, bright red sausages, colourful bilums, famous Papua New Guinea string bags, woven mats and ubiquitous betel nut. Friendly locals say “hello” as I walk past, smiling with their bright smiles. I am smiling in return, happy to be able to catch a glimpse of the amazing culture of the Gazelle Peninsula and its friendly people.
Dates: The National Mask & Warwagira Festival is an annual event held in July. The festival is called “National Mask & Warwagira Festival”, which may seem confusing. The festival described above is the National Mask Festival, which is a 2-day event. It’s followed by the 3-day Warwagira Festival showcasing traditional music, and local rock bands and gospel groups.
To find out the exact dates of the festival, you can contact Ms. Emma Robinson of the East New Britain Tourism Authority. Email and phone: +675 982 8657 / 982 8697.
In 2018, the Mask Festival will be held on 11-12 July.
Location: The National Mask & Warwagira Festival takes place in East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea. The location of the festival alternates between Kokopo and Rabaul towns. In 2018, the Mask Festival will be held in Kokopo.
How to get there: Fly to Rabaul airport, also called Tokua airport, via Port Moresby (1hr 20min). Both Air Niugini, Papua New Guinea national airline and PNG Air, offer regular flights to Tokua airport from Port Moresby.
Where to stay and eat: There is a number of guesthouses, hotels and resorts in Kokopo and a few accommodation options in Rabaul. Hotels usually have on-site restaurants, and both Kokopo and Rabaul towns have restaurants.
Accommodation can be found on
Bushtrack Enterprises provide a good selection of budget guesthouses
PNG Holidays provide a mixture of resorts and budget guesthouses
Same for Lonely Planet Kokopo and Lonely Planet Rabaul
Best sites for booking
Airbnb worth to be checked.
If the festival takes place in Kokopo, the showground is just next to the Gazelle International Hotel, making it a very convenient base.
Additional information: Women and girls MUST NOT touch Duk-Duk and Tambuan masks.