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Mud men make visit to Sydney

Monday 3 October 2016 | Published in Regional


PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Four Asaro tribesman have travelled to Sydney’s Australian Museum to take part in the opening of a new exhibition.

The Asaro are know widely as the “mud men” from Papua New Guinea’s eastern highlands, recognised by their ghoulish clay masks adorned with pigs’ teeth and shells.

With their skin painted white, elongated bamboo fingers, and their eerie masks, the four travelling mud men – who have never left Papua New Guinea’s highlands before – are currently being hosted at the Australian Museum for a week as “artists in residence” at a new and permanent mud men exhibit.

The museum commissioned Klinit Berry, a former administrator at the University of Goroka, to travel to the eastern highlands to find Asaro mask artists who might be interested in taking part.

With no written history, there is no way of pinpointing when the Asaro began making masks, though it is believed the practice has existed for four generations.

Berry has the most-often related story of the origin of the masks.

“One of the Asaro got married and everyone wore their traditional costumes,” she says.

“But one man had no costume, so he took an old bilum – a type of string bag – and cut two holes for his eyes, dipped it mud and also covered his skin with mud, and that was his costume.

“But when he arrived at the wedding, all the others thought he was a ghost and so instead of celebrating, they fled.”

The wedding guests’ reaction, Berry continues, gave the man an idea on how to score a decisive victory in a protracted tribal war with a neighbouring tribe.

He convinced his brother and his friends to disguise themselves with masks and mud.

“They covered themselves in mud and attacked the tribe, and that is how they won. The enemy thought ghosts were coming and they ran away without firing a single arrow.”

One of the mask men visiting Sydney is 29-year-old subsistence farmer Kori, who was Berry’s first contact at Komunive village.

“When she first came to visit and asked about the mask-making ritual, I thought she wanted to bring tourists to our village to watch us dance and buy souvenirs,” Kori says.

He says Komunive is not the only village in PNG where tourists go to see mud men. The concept has been plagiarised by dozens of other nearby tribes for commercial gain.

Plagiarism and commercialisation of the legend, Kori explains, is a big concern for the real descendants of the mud men.

“The government does not recognise or protect our ownership rights and everyone in the highlands is now claiming to be a mud man,” he says.

“But it’s our story and the others have copied it from us. It is a big worry for us because we don’t have any copyright protection.”

Jim is the oldest member of the quartet. He doesn’t know exactly how old he is, only that he’s in his fifties.

The first time he donned a mud mask was at the 1976 Goroka Show, an annual dance conceived in the 1950s by Australian patrol officers to provide an opportunity for isolated and historically warring tribes to interact in a peaceful environment.

“At first I was scared of the masks and those who wore them, but my father told me this is our culture, you must not be afraid,” Jim says.

“Now it is part of me and I am happy for the opportunity to come here to share it.”

He adds: “I did not know what to expect in Australia, none of us have ever been out of the highlands before, so everything is very interesting.

“I like the food, especially the chicken and chips. I can’t explain how happy I am to have seen the other side of the world.”

At 19, Kalo is the youngest member of the quartet.

“I came here to share the culture of the mud men but I never imagined how much interest there would be from the public. The reaction has been amazing,” he says.

“The other day, there was an elderly lady here in a wheelchair who asked me to make a mask for her, so I did it.

“Afterwards, she gave me three kisses on the cheek and shook my hand four times. She would not leave till the very end and it made me feel very happy.”

The museum says the permanent exhibition is to promote closer ties between the people of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“From its closest point, PNG is only 45 minutes’ walk from Australia’s Torres Strait Islands at low tide, but most of us know very little about it,” says Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, the museum’s collections officer.