Villagers and masks

Scholarly essay written by Roxanne Missingham, Director of Scholarly Information Services Division, ANU

Folder 2: 23 folios

This subcollection contains original field and studio drawings; dyelines with hand-finished variations; and one sepia proof.

Elizabeth’s journey relating to drawings of villagers and masks includes: travelling to the Sepik River area; Minj, Mount Hagen and Wabag in the Western Highlands Province; New Ireland Province; Parimomo, Orokolo; the Torres Strait and Aibom, Middle Sepik.

Eighteen folios in this subcollection have not been previously made available to researchers.

Women are represented in their normal daily situations, dressed for a party and a wedding exchange gift ceremony. Of the 23 folios, there are 13 drawings of women that provide open and frank insights into their life. Three show women wearing special traditional tribal costume and headdress. Two are illustrations of headdresses. The use of Bird of Paradise feathers (image 206) indicate that this vibrant plumage has been used by women, not just men, during this period.

Photographs in collections at the British Museum (1) and South Australian Museum (2) have images of women in gatherings at the period but not with the hair styling and headdress shown in the images by Elizabeth Durack.

At modern events, such as the Goroka Show (3) and Mount Hagan (4), usually called sing-sings, women and men adopt traditional dress and perform spectacular dances and ceremonies. Their costumes reflect use of feathers from native animals, paint and adornments such as bones and necklaces.

Elizabeth’s drawings reflect the dignity of women in villages and give a splash of the special dressing of women for events. They reflect well the brief given to her by the Minister, who said to her, 'Do something on the women of Papua New Guinea'. (5)

Papua New Guinea is world renowned for its carved wooden sculptures and clay pots from the Sepik and New Ireland regions, and the country has a rich and diverse cultural environment, with each ethnic and tribal community practicing its own art styles and forms, language and culture.

Wood carving of masks, shields and figurines is actively practised in areas that have highly decorative haus tambarans or spirit houses of the Sepik.

The four ceremonial carvings are from Central North Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago; Malaggan, North New Ireland and probably New Ireland. The carvings are similar to Malagan (6) and Torres Strait masks. (7)

The final illustration is of a Sago pot from Aibom, middle Sepik. Pots are made through coiling the clay, using a method that has been used for decades. The sago post held in the National Gallery of Victoria collection, collected over 20 years later. (8)

Dr Andrew Strathern comments: “Sepik carvings are the sine qua nom of every tourist shop in Papua New Guinea, every catalogue, every self-respecting museum”. (9) In some ways, the fact that by 1980 the carvings were ubiquitous with tourist and galleries gives these illustrations greater significance as they record the specific work practices in 1968.


(1) Photographs of Papua New Guinea women. The British Museum.

(2) South Australian Museum. 2017. Digital Collections.

(3) Pemberton, Becky. “Inside the largest tribal gathering in the world”. The Daily Mail. May 30, 2015. 

(4) Green, Frances. “Mt Hagen Cultural Show a highlight of PNG tribes' year”. ABC News. Aug. 21, 2015.

(5) Hughes, Robin. "Elizabeth Durack". Sep. 4, 1997. Australian Biography.

(6) No author. 1887. Malagan mask from New Ireland. Sydney, NSW: Australian Museum.

(7) Khan Academy. 2017. The Pacific: Masks from the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and other collections. Khan Academy.

(8) National Gallery of Victoria. Aibom people, Chambri Lakes, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Art Collection.,, 

(9) Kirk, Malcolm. 1981. Man as art: New Guinea body decoration. London: Thames & Hudson.