The language term for masks in the western islands of the Zenadh-Kes (Torres Strait) is ‘Adhaz Paaru’. This literally means face of the outside. I called these Zugubal Koey Mawal meaning large masks of the spiritual ancestors
The ancient turtle-shell masks made by my ancestors are sacred to Torres Strait Islander culture. They were specifically created for certain rituals and ceremonies. These mask rituals were especially sacred practices because they were used to communicate with the ancestors of the spirit world.
Masks are forbidden to women and children. They are not allowed to touch or take part in any of these rituals for it is strictly men’s business. The old men would sing ancient songs while the other men performed the spirit dances. They would imitate certain totems relating to the purpose of the performance. Through the masks, the men would communicate with their ancient spiritual ancestors.
I decided to continue the art of mask making using the contemporary medium of fiberglass. I stain them to look like the carapace of the hawksbill turtle. The masks I create today are not sacred but the same cultural protocols are observed as they were in ancient times.
Particular masks are used for particular performances. This mask, which is one of a series of five, is based on the significance of mask and spirit, the moon and totems.
The Mask Performance
The ‘Bu’, trumpet shell, is blown to acknowledge the spirits of the winds. – we have many culturally identified winds in the Zenadh-Kes. Later warriors take part in a ritual called ‘Poeypiyam angayk’. They scan the area for bad spirits and outsiders and make certain sounds to distract uninvited spirits and beings. At the same time they call for the spiritual ancestors to join them in the mask ritual.
Once the warriors are satisfied that the area is clear of uninvited guests, the old men start to chant and the Mawa masks appear. After the ritual performance, they disappear, and the warriors again scan the area.
At the end the Bu is blown to acknowledge and thank the spiritual ancestors.