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Inside the Gulf Mask Festival in Papua New Guinea

Difficult to reach by both land and sea, the Gulf Mask Festival is a treasure of traditional culture and dress. Writer and photographer Olga Fontanellaz travels to this lesser-visited region to record a unique sing-sing.

With garlands of fragrant frangipani flowers on our necks and speeches in our honor, we feel like a royal family on the official visit to the Pacific islands. “Welkam tru,” the villagers, not accustomed to seeing tourists, warmly welcome us in Tok Pisin, one of the three major languages of Papua New Guinea. We arrive for a festival in the small village of Toare, found about 300 kilometers from Port Moresby, the country’s capital, to see the little known Gulf Mask Festival.

As for PNG’s off-the-beaten track reputation, in recent years some festivals, such as the Mount Hagen Festival, Goroka Show, and Rabaul Mask Festival, have become world-famous and are now firmly on the travel itineraries of tourists, photographers, and journalists the world over. But none of these festivals, known as a sing-sing, see the performers from the Gulf province.


ABOVE: Faces of the Gulf Mask Festival.

While the Gulf isn’t an entirely isolated province, it’s a relatively remote region located on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. The weather and the infrastructure keep most travelers away.

Barely served by roads, river and sea are the main means of transportation, but even via sea small boats stay ashore for about half the year. The southeast trade winds blowing directly into the Gulf bring heavy rains, making the sea rough and the journey dangerous, conditions that contribute to the uniqueness of the Gulf culture.

Toare village, with its blue sea and white sandy beach, is an idyllic location, but all thoughts of swimming are abandoned with the sound of rhythmic drum beats. Proudly wearing the finest of their traditional attire and elaborate masks, the dancers enter the improvised showground.

ABOVE: With grass skirts as their only clothing, bodies painted in bright orange mud, a group of young boys and girls perform traditional songs.

In PNG, each tribe has its own distinctive attire and ornaments, or bilas. The Huli are known for their wigs which are made from their own hair. Large round hats made of moss, plants, and hair are the features of people from the Enga province. The Western Highlanders take pride in towering feathered headgear and vivid body paint. The Chimbus are recognized by giant headdresses made of bird of paradise feathers, an ornithologist’s nightmare. The Elema, the coastal people of the Gulf province, have a trademark too: their intricate masks.

With stylized facial features, the Gulf masks show diversity in style, shape, color, and size. Ornate, large, tall or narrow, the masks are made of natural materials. Bark cloth, known as tapa, is stretched over a split-cane frame, sewn with plant fiber and painted with natural pigments. Although large, the masks are light-weight, allowing the men to wear them for long hours.

ABOVE: A male performer wearing a giant mask, a trademark of the coastal people of the Gulf province

It’s a mid-day and the sun is restless at the Gulf Mask Festival, and so are the masked men, who don’t stop their frenzied dancing on the beach, with their eyes staring through masks’ tiny gaps. Not so long after, the men representing characters from local legends make the public giggle and laugh with their blunders and silly gestures. I capture their comic performance, when suddenly one particularly enthusiastic dancer fixes his determined gaze upon me and jumps forward with a long spear in the hand as if to attack. For a second, I see nothing but his crazed eyes in my lens.

Besides the masks and clay, many men only wear bark loincloth and arse gras, a bunch of leaves stuck into a belt to cover the backside. The women are bare-breasted, with large kina shells dangling on their chests above their colorful grass skirts decorated with small shells; they swing their hips to the beats of kundu, or traditional drums. Made from sago palms, the grass skirts are the object of pride of local women.

ABOVE: Dressed in tapa cloth made from the bark of the mulberry tree, a young performer beats a kundu, a typical PNG drum made of wood, with a snake or lizard’s skin as a membrane.

Soon, the chaotic Gulf Mask Festival begins winding down. Content to spend the rest of the time with toes in white sand, a man makes me sign for me to follow him into someone’s home. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I discerned the precious treasures: old Gulf masks, fish-tail drums, and gope boards, elliptical ritual objects used in the past in headhunting raids for displaying enemies’ skulls and given to men for bravery. The man’s look is a mixture of pride and embarrassment. He is a Christian now, and the artifacts are the reminders of his people’s wild past.

ABOVE: Only men wear elaborate Gulf masks, which use bark cloth stretched over a split-cane frame and painted with natural dyes.

The sky darkens before night consumes the village. Traveling at night in PNG is a risky enterprise, and that night we slept in a thatched house on stilts. Besieged by persistent natnat, a far too kind term for mosquitoes in Tok Pisin, we find some refuge beneath mosquito nets full of holes. Lying on thin mattresses on a creaky sago palm floor, listening to geckos, screeching piglets, and the whispered voices of our hosts, we felt humbled to be welcomed into their home.

ABOVE: Representing characters from local legends, a group of men make the public laugh with their silly gestures.

The morning greets us with a blue sky and sago pancakes. In this coastal province abundant with sago palms, sago is a main staple food and building material. Sago was even exchanged for clay pots and shells with the Motu people from the Central province.

Sitting around the smoldering fire slowly baking our sago pancakes, I wondered if adding some Nutella on these starchy and bland flatbreads would breach the local etiquette, but that condiment is unsurprisingly rare in the Gulf province. We make an exchange: sago for rice and tinned fish, which are immensely popular across the country. “Easy to store in a hot climate,” some say, but I think it’s more because of the status associated with Western food.

Soon, with gifts of grass skirts received from women with large, comforting smiles, we are set for a rough, potholed ride back to Port Moresby. Things change fast in Papua New Guinea. Active missionaries, discovery of oil and gas and the arrival of Digicel, the Irish mobile phone company, have transformed the people’s traditional way of life. But tribal identity is still a strong source of pride; nowhere is this more evident than the Gulf Mask Festival.