Dance Ornament - Axe

Production date
Papua New Guinea
East New Britain
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Object detail

Wooden imitation hafted steel axe, or pem, with tubuan eyes painted on the handle in colourful paints.
CH classification INDIGENOUS CULTURES Melanesian & South Sea Islander axe
Production date
L1021 x W176 mm
Media/Materials description
Wood, paint
History and use
The Tolai believed that upon death and regardless of your status in life, we depart to another physical existence as spirits, enabling the deceased to reproduce the social and cultural aspects of society on a different plane. Though invisible to the living, these spirits can manifest into a visible guise in a ceremonial context through the aid of masks and dances.

Members of secret societies such as the dukduk or tubuan, which still operate to this day, maintain and pass on their knowledge of songs, the practice of magic and the secrets of the physical manifestations of these spirits. As well, members are entitled to a sort of policing function in regards to traditional laws.

The object highlighted, is a dance axe known as pem, used during a mourning ceremony in which the tubuan (a masked figure representing a spiritual mother) searches out the deceased’s spirit and with the pem, chops down the deceased’s house and trees in order to discover the deceased's spirit.

Before the ceremony, the pem is decorated with red paint and the tubuan does a number of dance performances within a sacred area. When dawn approaches, there is complete silence in the village. Sacred musical instruments are blown by tubuan members, pre-empting the appearance of the tubuan, who bursts from the trees and appears at the deceased’s home carrying the pem.

An elder introduces the tubuan by calling her name. The tubuan carrying the pem runs aggressively, stepping on the doorstep of the deceased’s house or on trees. A tubuan member will follow the tubuan, observing what to chop. The tubuan member will then take the pem from the tubuan and chop everything that the tubuan has put her foot on.

Following the completion of the chopping of the house and trees, the tubuan returns with the pem to the sacred area, where more singing and performing is done until daybreak.

Uploaded to the Web 27 May 2011.
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