Ngari Isaac / Uramat clan, Nguarhi family / Papua New Guinea b.unknown / Varhit 2017 / Varhit mask and ururaga (aerial): barkcloth with natural pigments, texta, wood, bark twine, cane, wood, feathers / Mask: 78 x 42 x 42.5cm, aerial height: 191.5cm / Gift of the Indigenous Uramat Indentity of Gaulim and Wunga villages through Gideon Kakabin and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2018 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artists

Ngari Isaac
Varhit 2017

On Display: Regional Touring Exhibition

According to Uramat belief, the world comprises of two identical, parallel realms – the physical and the spiritual. Each individual has a personal guardian in the spirit realm who watches over them. It is important to appease these spirits by maintaining traditional laws and through the communal practice of ritualised dance cycles.

The Uramat day dances are grand in scale and several village communities will often join together in order to manage the extensive preparations involved in the masking ceremonies and associated feasts. The artworks for the day dance cycles include towering mask forms associated with human endurance, growth, fertility and agriculture, as well as various helmet masks that the Uramat people believe embody particular individuals, animals and cosmological figures. The protective role of the spirits is emphasised in the day ceremonies, which celebrate the harvest and commemorate the dead.

The barkcloth masks made for night dances are designed to ward off malevolent spirits, and are also used to initiate young men. In these dances, individual masked figures run through the fire, kicking logs in a shower of sparks not unlike an erupting volcano or a mass of swarming insects. The masks used in these dances are known generically under the title of kavat mask, but have individual names. The distinguishing features of the kavat are outsized round eyes and the beard-like appendage below the duck bill mouth. The actual form of the mask and much of its decoration is linked to various animals and plants that are encountered or hunted in the bush.

The dramatic set of masks were specially created by members of the Uramat clan of the Baining people. The Uramat Baining live at the eastern tip of the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea, in the steep mountain range behind the historical town of Rabaul. The group relies primarily on subsistence farming in this place of extreme conditions that include cyclones, seismic activity and volcanic eruptions. The Baining consequently have strong spiritual beliefs and associated artistic practices that support their knowledge of the natural world.