The Asaro Mud Men are globally known for their clay masks with fearsome facial expressions, and have become a symbol of regional and national identity, plus a premier international tourist attraction for Papua New Guinea.

With support of the Australian Museum Foundation, in September I traveled to Goroka, capital of the Eastern Highlands. We are here to work on a collaborative acquisition field project with filmmakers from the University of Goroka and members of the Komunive community, Asaro Valley, to bring a collection of Holosa (ghost) or clay masks and their stories to further enhance and complement the Australian Museum’s Eastern Highlands collection.

This is the first time the Australian Museum has commissioned a collection of the clay masks.

Preliminary discussions of this project began in October 2015 with Goroka-based filmmakers Klinit Barry and Dilen Doiki. Following this was 10 months of discussions with community, Goroka-based liaisons staff, intense community meetings and the overall planning of the Asaro field work logistics include Komunive community, Goroka carpenters, staff from the PNG National Museum, JFK McCarthy Museum, PNG Wildlife Conservation Department, and other major agencies such as Niugini Holidays, Air Niugini and Australian Biosecurity staff.

I arrived at Goroka airport on 11 September, with a large cargo of packing materials from Sydney. I was assisted by Goroka airport ground staff and Asaro project team members, Klinit and Dilen to load the cargo onto a 4WD and transport it for temporary storage at the JFK McCarthy Museum. The Museum's director and her staff welcomed us and kindly helped us to bring the packing materials into an allocated storage area within the Museum.

After leaving the Museum we made our way to the Bird of Paradise Hotel to meet with Kiki, the carpenter responsible for making the crates to transport the collection to Sydney. We discussed details of the boxes with him. Later on, in the afternoon, we departed for the Asaro Valley, driving a beaten up 4WD with large cracks on the windscreen glass. We drove along the winding highlands highway west of Goroka to finally meet with the makers of the Holosa collection.

The Asaro Valley’s landscape is stunning, with a backdrop of emerald green mountain ranges, surrounded by thick white clouds. This region is an extremely fertile area, with deep black soil gardens, proudly showing a wide range of healthy organically grown local crops.

Upon arrival at the Komunive village, we were received by two Mud Men walking slowly towards Klinit and I. Both were wearing Holosa, their bodies were fully covered in white clay and they were carrying bows and arrows. Their ghostly, theatrical slow movements were intimidating, as they stared at us silently, behind the eyes of their clay masks, pointing their arrows at us, as they began escorting Klinit and I towards the village's main entrance, which has been carefully decorated with beautiful flowers.

Klinit and I were both, standing with a Mud Man on each side, as representatives of the Komunive village gave us a warm welcome, standing in a line, placing gifts of bilums over our heads and shaking our hands. We all sat down and began to talk about the field acquisition project. They were all very excited and grateful for the Australian Museum’s interest in their culture, an interest in bringing a collection of their Holosa masks to the Australian Museum. We are told that this is the first time they have worked closely with a major cultural institution that has shown commitment in making a significant collection of clay-masks and documenting their stories.

Our meeting ended up with a lovely local banquet served inside a specially-made Asaro hut on a table decorated with colourful flowers and examples of clay masks on display.

Asaro - Komunive village
Images taken by former Development Manager at the AM, Michel Zwecker, on a field trip to the Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. The trip with Yvonne Carrillo, Senior Collections Officer of the Pacific Collections, resulted in the aquistiion of the Asaro Mud Mask collections. The Asaro community is made up of several tribes and numerous smaller clan groups living at the foot of Mount Daulo and the start of the great Asaro Valley that runs east towards Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. These images show preparation for a performance by the people of Kominive village. Image: Michel Zwecker
© Australian Museum

The following day, we drove back to the Komunive village departing the Bird of Paradise Hotel at 6am. We met with the community representatives to discuss filming activities for the day. Dilen was ready with the camera when a group of men arrived with a bucket containing water and clay, and began ointing each other slowly, gradually turning their brown skin white.

Other Asaro men walked slowly towards the first group, carrying the clay masks they had made for the Museum with great care. All of the men are standing and proudly holding their precious Holosa masks, while the other group of men finish decorating their bodies with white clay. Once their bodies are completely white, the heavy clay-masks are carefully placed over each men’s head.

The Mud Men began to perform while another group of adults and children have gathered sitting on the ground to listen to Papa Buka, a Komunive elder tell his version of stories about the ‘true’ origin of the Asaro Mud Masks. According to Papa Buka; Lupu Nuho, brother of the well known mudmen master Ruipo Okoroho, made a face mask out of a bilum to wear at a sing-sing in Kemanimo, upper Asaro. He went inside a deep mud-pit and rubbed mud all over himself in an underground mud pool. He came out fully covered in mud, placed a feather on his head and walked into the village holding a spear bunara (bow and arrow). When people saw him, they thought he was a ghost and began to run away without recognising it was Lupu Nuho….

The Mud Men are keen to share their own side of the story about origin of the masks, the process of making them and the stories behind their performances.

Filming this part of their story was quite impressive as women, children, Mud Men carrying bows and arrows and even pigs began the re-enactment of their community historical events.

And the story continues, in the 1950s, during the time of Ruipo Okoroho, there was regular inter-tribal fighting with nearby villages in the Asaro Valley. One day, a group of Mud Men wearing Holosa, went to Zoite, one of several enemy tribal clans. The group slowly walked through the village, one of the mud-man lit a fire in the traditional way of rubbing two dry sticks and set fire to a bundle of dried grass and lit a kunai (Asaro traditional thatch house). Flames quickly engulfed the three houses while people were running away screaming in great fear. The Mud Men stood there, with their ghostly, terrifying Holosa, and their weapons pointing to the running group as women, children, elders and their pigs gradually disappeared into the bush…

Papa Buka also talked about the preservation of Asaro-Komunive cultural identity, passing on knowledge about clay, and mask-making to the young; as well as intellectual copyrights and the increasing concerns of the Asaro people about drought as a result of climate change.

We returned to Goroka for a team debrief about the day's activities, and later on went to meet with Kiki the carpenter and his team to check on the progress of the crates. Things were gradually coming along, and we were shown an example of the first crate, although there are still 11 more to make…

The following day, we drove back to the Komunive village to document the perspectives of Asaro masks makers Jim Gahiye and Amos Amoy. Later In the afternoon, we walked down the hill with a group of Mud Men towards the river, to film them crossing the Giapoka river toward the site where the Asaro clay is collected.

We have only been in Goroka for three days and there is a still a full program ahead of filming activities, packing and fitting internal boxes for the collection and documenting the Asaro group performing at the Goroka Show.

The Asaro Mud Men were in residence at the Australian Museum from 25-30 September. Their masks will then be entered into the Australian Museum Cultural Collection for perpetuity.

Asaro Mud Men
26 September 2016, Australian Museum. Inhabitants of Komunive village, Asaro River area near Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, are famous for their fearsome clay headdresses and dramatic ritualized celebrations of custom in the form of dance performances. Visiting clay mask makers from the Eastern Highlands perform for visitors in the atrium of the Australian Museum. Image: Abram Powell, Abram Powell
© Australian Museum