Q: I’m doing some research for an elderly friend on some masks she bought in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s. She was particularly interested in the Iban people of Borneo. Some of the masks are quite nice, but this one and another like it, confuse me. They’re both about 24x15x10cm and seem to be carved of ironwood. The weight and the fact that neither have eye or mouth holes make me wonder if they were ever designed for use. Thanks so much for your advice! Sarah, 738
A: I like the way this mask looks, but I can’t pin it down to a particular culture because it is unfamiliar. It is a bit too small to fit on a face, so it may have been made for display or sale to tourists. Let’s start with Malaysia, Sarawak and the whole Kalimantan because those are the areas that your friend was interested in. You could do some Google Image searches, and perhaps you’ll get some help from one of our viewers. It’s a nice looking old mask and worth a little research.
After some further research, this appears to be an art or tourist piece in the style of a middle Sepik River (Papua New Guinea) savi mask. Savi masks, which aren’t meant to be worn, are one of a number of tools used as protection against black magic by the Iatmul people in that area, and are stored in a village’s collective spirit house, where other objects of spiritual or magical significance are kept as well.
I still wouldn’t rule out Borneo. But you’re right, it could be from the Savi River area of PNG… and it also could be from the Pende people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Obviously, this interesting mask needs more research.