Interpreting a Tatanua Mask

in Museum Worlds
View More View Less
  • 1 University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) bruno.haas@univ-paris1.fr
  • 2 Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität philipp.schorch@ethnologie.lmu.de
  • 3 Australian Museum michael.mel@austmus.gov.au
Restricted access

This article introduces the art historical method of functional deixis into the study of material culture in anthropology. Functional deixis begins with a thorough empirical description of communicative effects—visual and embodied—produced by a material thing on the beholder. It then proceeds by tending to a kind of formalisation that enables us, on the one hand, to sharpen our intuitive reaction to the thing and, on the other, to obtain detailed knowledge about the ways material things produce significance. Here, the method is applied to a tatanua mask originating from present-day Papua New Guinea and currently housed at the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, Germany. Based on a thick description, we propose an in-depth interpretation of the mask as a complex response to a fundamental injury, articulating a symbolic expression of grief (left side) with an iconic expression overcoming grief (right side) after a passage through a real word expressed through the front of the mask. In doing so, the article offers a tool to study with rather than a text to read off.