Parts of the Tolai 'Alor' Headdress of East New Britain

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At the annual National Mask & Warwagira Festival in East New Britain, visitors are treated to a unique showcase of cultural dances.  From the Tolai people who inhabit the Gazelle District, their Alor Mask Headdresses are some of the most iconic of East New Britain culture.  Read more about their design and significance.  

They are best known as the Alor Masks of the Tolai Tribe and they consist of a wooden helmet mask, covered by a cone-shaped hat with a rim, and a mounted structure that towers over a humanoid figure that is associated with other bodied entities like snakes that sit above the helmet. However, the exact meaning of the mask remains known only to initiated men, while the parts of the elaborate headdress can be described.

Although each Tolai clan’s Alor Mask differs from their designs around the Gazelle Peninsula, there is a basic pattern that is widely used.  Basically, the structure is about 1.2 meters high.  The part that is fixed to the wearer’s head is called the ‘Pinpidik‘ just above that piece are usually protruding sculptures or feathers of a type of flightless bird called the, ‘Akakmal‘.  The bird casts a certain behaviour on the dancer to mimic the movements of the bird itself.

At the top of the cone-shaped helmet is placed a carved flat piece of wood called, ‘pala-oanga‘. There, the humanoid sculpture is attached with outstretched arms to which the remaining sculptures are attached. It represents powerful spiritual figures called, ‘turangan‘. In the center of the platform a flat, carved and painted irregular shaped mast rises, the lower end of which is a diamond shape from which, often a sharp spine-like decoration protrude, called the ‘amimi‘.

Along the sides are two curved, painted and serrated struts which curve to the top of the mast from the head of the Turangan spirit, these struts represent the rainbow or, ‘agogol‘.

These headdresses are meticulously carved by skilled Tolai men with the knowledge of bestowing secret meanings to elevate its significance then displayed in public cultural ceremonies for dances like the Tambaran dance. ◼️ 

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Images: (above) Tolai men from Tavuiliu, in the Gazelle District, East New Britain, ready to perform at the Rabaul Coastal Shipping wharf to welcome MV Chebu, November 2014- photo by Poreni Umau / Porexnation; (below 1)  Tolai Tambaran cultural performance at the 2015 National Mask Festival – photo by Pauline Riman;  (below 2) Tolai cultural dancers walking into a performance at the 2019 National Mask & Warwagira Festival – photo by Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort

Kokopo Beach Bungalows Resort National Mask Warwagira Festival

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