Helmet Mask (Temes Mbalmbal)

Date: mid-20th century

Geography: Vanuatu, Southwest Malakula

Culture: Southwest Malakula

Medium: Wood, vegetable fiber, pig tusks, glass, metal, paint

Dimensions: H. 26 x W. 15 1/2 x D. 19 in. (66 x 39.4 x 48.3 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.206.1697


Worn over the head like a helmet, this mask from southwestern Malakula was associated with men's grade rites, a hierarchical series of initiations each of which confers successively greater sacred and secular authority to the individual, both in this world and in the afterlife. Masks, collectively called temes mbalmbal, are created for the rites of the Nalawan grade cycle. Worn by initiated men, they serve as temporary abodes for the spirits of recently departed ancestors.

Although associated with male ritual life, the main subject of this mask is female. The central face depicts Nevimbumbaau, a powerful female being associated with a number of the fundamental elements of men's grade rites. The pig's tusks sprouting from her mouth indicate she is an idealized being—combining the qualities of humans and pigs, the two most sacred entities in religious life. Her eyes consist of a hexagonal metal nut and a glass marble, trade goods that, until comparatively recently, were rare and valuable objects. The male figure atop her head possibly portrays her husband, Ambat Molondr.