Turtle shell mask from the Torres Strait Islands
This is a crocodile mask from Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait Islands. The long snout is constructed from turtle shell with teeth and ears made from wood. White pigeon feathers are attached to a triangular bamboo projection. Cassowary feathers, coconut fibre, cloth strips and shells hang from the mask, which measures 19 cm wide, 27 cm high and 88 cm deep.
Masks made of turtle shell were used in rituals and ceremonies in the Torres Strait Islands and made to represent ancestors with an associated totem, frequently the crocodile. The masks sometimes have the form of the human face or animals such as birds, fish or reptiles, with many masks combining the features of both humans and animals. Similar masks and headdresses made of plywood, bamboo or plastic continue to be created and used today.
This mask is artistically impressive and culturally significant for Torres Strait Islanders, and was designed to be worn over a man's head. Masks like this one were worn by men in various ceremonies such as funerary rituals, initiation of adolescents or fertility ceremonies to induce trees to fruit and to increase the crop harvest. In the Torres Strait the mask is called a 'tete' or 'kar' and this one was worn in the kap (dance) ceremony.
In the 19th century masks such as this were typically made from turtle shell. The shell has been shaped by pressing and moulding it with a hot stone. Lines were carved in it and rubbed with a white pigment to contrast with the dark surface. The pieces of shell were sewn together and attached to a wooden frame with coconut fibre and resin. Shells and nuts were hung from masks to make a rattling sound during the dance.
The mask was collected on Mer by Charles Hedley and Allan McCulloch, biologists from the Australian Museum on their collecting expedition to the Torres Strait in 1907. This style of the crocodile mask is typical of the western Torres Strait Islands so it is intriguing that it was collected from the easternmost island. It is not known whether it was brought to Mer specifically for the Museum collectors or if it was already on the island for another purpose.
The art of making highly decorative masks has been practised for centuries in the Torres Strait Islands. The rapid cultural changes and adoption of Christianity by the islanders in the 1870s resulted in the relinquishing of some of their traditional practices, and led to the decline in the production and use of turtle-shell masks. In 1907 McCulloch photographed a man wearing this mask and made a detailed sketch of it, indicating his appreciation of its quality and its rarity at the time.