Chachet Baining Art

In a Day and Night Dance Celebration at Walmatki Village on the Gazelle Peninsula, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea

By: George A. Corbin

Originally Published in 1982

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The Chachet Baining people live in the northwestern area of the Gazelle Peninsula. They have long been known for their dra­matic daytime dances with colossal bark-cloth display pieces, headdresses, and masks. At the time of first Western contact in the 1890s, the Chachet created the now extinct “hareiga” display pieces for use in a day dance ceremony to celebrate the harvest, and the recent births within each hamlet, and to commemorate the dead. Although somewhat changed over the past seventy years, in spite of disruptive world wars, disease, and the impact of Western institutions and economic forces, the pat­tern of creating and using barkcloth art forms has continued. In recent years the Chachet have also adopted from their neighboring Baining peoples, the Kairak and Uramot Baining, the tradition of mak­ing headdresses and masks for use in a night dance.

While in East New Britain during 1972­-1973 I had the opportunity to see and record a day and night dance celebration at Walmatki village among the Chachet Baining where dozens of barkcloth art forms were used. The celebration took place on October 20, 1972 in honor of two Sum­mer Institute of Linguistics researchers, Mr. and Mrs. James Parker, who were about to embark on an extended holiday after living at Walmatki for a couple of years. A neighboring village, Panarapka, also took part in the day and night dance celebra­tion, the first to be held by the villages in over three years.

The preparation for the day dance took place in a secret bush area where a tem­porary hut with open ends had been constructed to protect the various display pieces, headdresses, body spears, and masks to be used in the day dance celebra­tion (Fig. 2), At Walmatki and other Chachet Baining villages there is a certain order to the preparation of art for use in the day dance: first a large barkcloth dis­play piece is made, then smaller head­dresses and masks, and finally, elaborately decorated body spears covered with hun­dreds of bird feathers. (Figs. 10, 14; body spears are ceremonial spears which were formerly attached through the skin of the dancer at the base of the spine and the pectoral region of the chest. Today the spear is held up using a barkcloth pouch held between the legs of the dancer.) Prepa­rations for both celebrations may extend over several months. Women were gen­erally not allowed access to the prepara­tions in the bush area (there are some exceptions for women of special ritual status) as the making of the ritual para­phernalia is considered “dangerous” to women, and therefore, the area is “taboo” until a special “presentation ceremony” the day before the day dance.

The barkcloth is made from the inner bark of the breadfruit or paper mulberry trees. The wood is softened in water and beaten with a wooden beater, or a special hammer made from two mussel shells tied to a stick, After it has been stripped from the tree trunk and beaten together to form larger pieces, it is dried and bleached in the sun. Later, it is sewn onto bamboo arma­tures to create various display pieces, head­dresses, and masks. The white barkcloth is painted with black pigment to create a negative image, with red used as an outline color, and sometimes to represent the “blood” of the spirit. Various design motifs are painted on day dance art forms, includ­ing flora such as betel nut leaves, fern fronds, and generalized flora representing garden growth. In addition, red and black biting ants, dog’s teeth, butterflies, and nuts are among the motifs painted on day dance art.

On the day before the celebration, an entourage of women and children from Walmatki accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Parker and their son to a place alongside the Walmatki River where the women bathed themselves and their children before rubbing small blotches of powdered lime on various parts of their bodies to protect them from the power of the spirits awaiting them on display as day dance art forms next to the bush hut (Fig. 3). They entered the presentation area in a single file, shak­ing hands with the men who were lined up at the entrance, and who had a hand in preparing the day dance art objects. Each piece was wrapped with a protective leaf knot which was untied by an old woman past child bearing age. A man ritually “killed” the vessels used to contain the red and black pigments by chopping them up with his bush knife. After this, he pointed to each object on display and named the person who made it and would use it the following day. Then, the women sat back relaxed, smoked, and talked in hushed tones before the large barkcloth display piece (Fig. 4), decorated body spears, elongated cone-shaped headdresses (Fig. 5) and large composite helmet masks (cover and Figs. 6, 7), before returning to the village to prepare for the next day’s activities.

The following morning, after a period of feasting and a local church service for those wishing to celebrate Christian ritual, the women sat beneath a temporary shelter (Fig. 8) and began singing while beating percussion rhythms with various sized bamboo sticks against logs, stones, and the bare ground, thereby creating an all female “orchestra” for the day dance. A small group of women, many with a child on her back, began dancing in a slow clockwise circle where they barely shuffled along. At about 9:30 A.M., a loud report from the bush opposite the women’s orchestra sig­naled the entrance of the first display piece being carried by thirteen men and boys (Fig. 9). The display piece (called remortki, meaning a long flat tail-like thing) ap­proached the women, backed off in a series of alternating hop-like steps, turned in a semi-circular direction counter-clockwise, before circling the women and children on the dance ground, after which they made a hasty retreat off the dance area with the display piece in hand. The display piece serves to frighten away evil spirits from the dance ground with its power, thereby pro­tecting the ceremonial area (it is also used in nearby gardens for the same purpose). Sometimes the painted barkcloth is stripped off the display piece and used by women as a form of “fertility blanket” to give them magical aid in future childbearing.

At about 11:45 the number of female dancers thinned out, and after a short while, a group of men wearing decorated body spears (Fig. 10) entered the dance ground and approached the women’s orchestra, moving in a dance pattern similar to that performed by the men with the display piece. After they left the dance ground, a second display piece was brought in by seven men and boys, carried around in a circle in front of the orchestra, then taken away by several men (Fig. 11).

At 12:25, the women stopped singing and beating their rhythms. Another loud report from the bush heralded the entry of five dancers wearing decorated cone-shaped vertical headdresses topped with leaves (Figs. 12, 13). They presented themselves to the orchestra, where they were, one by one, relieved of their costumes which consisted of several layers of women’s ceremonial skirts, before taking off the headdresses and leaving the dance area. About an hour later, a second group of men with decorated body spears entered as had several earlier, and one of the men separated from the rest and circled the women, dancing at least twenty-five times in an exceptional display of power, stamina, and dancing ability (Fig. 14). After he left, there was a pause for about a half hour. At about 3:30, three additional dancers appeared wearing vertical headdresses topped by leaves. Five composite helmet masked dancers entered about 4:00 o’clock, accompanied by women and children with a great hoopla of fireworks, gunshots, and shouting (Fig. 15). They danced towards the orchestra in a series of slow, ponderous movements, in which they often pulled in their stomachs (to display their thinness after many days of fasting) and crouched into a deep-knee bend before standing nearly erect again. They stood in front of the orchestra, bending, retreating, and advancing in slow movements (said to symbolize the slow growth of garden trees and plants) (Fig. 16) before the masks were removed and taken away from the dance ground. A second group of these composite helmet masks entered shortly afterward (Fig. 17), danced as the others had previ­ously, then were taken away. The end of the day dance celebration was signaled late in the afternoon when the women who had been dancing in a circle throughout the day grabbed bunches of leaves, stood in front of the women’s orchestra, and threw the leaves at the orchestra, while emitting blood-curdling screams and shouts. The temporary shelter was torn down, the dance ground cleaned of branches and stones in preparation for the night dance celebration where an all male orchestra replaced the female orchestra of the day dance celebration.

Shortly before dark a huge bonfire was lit and the men’s orchestra (Fig. 18) began singing and beating percussion rhythms on logs, stones, and the bare ground. Suddenly, out of the pitch black of the night, from the direction of the bush, there appeared dancers wearing headdresses, helmet masks, and composite helmet masks with cut pandanus side panels. They arrived singly, approached the orchestra, then went to the side of the dance ground to form a long line of masks dancing in place. In all, more than thirty masks of various sorts lined up before breaking away to dance throughout the night in opposition to the male orchestra. They were lighted only by the ambient light of the fire (it was a moon­less night) and appeared to be floating above the dark ground. Whereas the art used in the day dance celebration sym­bolized the products of the gardens, a realm of feminine activity and slow gradual ripening of food, the majority of the night dance masks and designs symbolized the domain and creatures found in the bush, a realm where the more active pursuits of hunting, trapping, and exploitation of vari­ous wild flora and fauna, are characteristic of a masculine nature. The night dance masks had been constructed in a special bush hut (Fig. 19) away from the village.

The dance movements of the night dancers differed greatly from the slow ponderous ones observed in the day dance. Each individual masked dancer seemed to be engaged in an alternating approach to, then movement away from the all male orchestra, after which he would dance into the bonfire, kicking up sparks and, on occa­sion, picking up glowing embers from the fire and, after dancing with them around the dance ground, giving them to the orchestra (this probably symbolized the creatures of the bush ultimately in the service of people in the “civilized” villages). Between about 6:00 o’clock and sunrise the following morning, over thirty masks par­ticipated in the night dance.

Immediately before dawn, the numbers of masks gradually decreased, the few remaining dancers stomped out the last of the bonfire, and the orchestra succeeded in “chasing” the spirits (the masked dancers) back to the realm of the bush, just before the sun arose and a small group of women began dancing in a small circle to signal the end of the night dance and the beginning of a new day.

Masks of various sorts (Figs. 20-26) were used in the night dance including represen­tations of the spirits of a wild pig, an owl, hornbills, a fresh water fish, a rat, a bush bird, as well as composite helmet masks with pandanus side panels (Fig. 27) repre­senting spider’s webs or useful vines and plants from the bush. These all represent creatures which live or grow in the bush and which are hunted or gathered as food, or animals which are known for their hunt­ing or trapping abilities. In recent years new mask types (Figs. 28-30) have been created by the Chachet including one rep­resenting a domesticated cat, a cow, a helicopter and a “wise-old-man” spirit called Surrugga, as well as many others.

As this account indicates and the photo­graphs reveal, the art of the Chachet Baining at Walmatki and Panarapka vil­lages is still an active and vital expression of their traditional culture as it experiences change and developments brought on by a newly emerging nation, Papua New Guinea.

Cite This Article

Corbin, George A.. "Chachet Baining Art." Expedition Magazine 24, no. 2 (January, 1982): -. Accessed June 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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