There were times when this mask with its mantle of leaves concealed a human being. But as soon as that person donned the costume that covered their whole body, they were no longer themselves. Instead, they embodied what’s known as a tago, an ancestral spirit.
Tago masks were indigenous to the Tami islands, a small island group off the north-east coast of Papua New Guinea. The inhabitants came up with various explanations of how the tago spirits had originated. According to tradition, they came into being at the same time as the village. Or they came from the island of New Britain as a result of marriages.
However, unlike festivals in Europe, which recur annually, the tago only appeared in public every ten to twelve years. But then the tago period continued for about a year. During that year, nightly masked dances took place, and the tago roamed the village at various times of the day, either individually or in groups. The tago never spoke, but only communicated with gestures, by nodding or shaking their heads.
Each tago had a distinctive appearance and character. Some were well and truly feared. Women and children would flee as soon as they caught sight of the masks, while men might well be pelted with stones and fruit.
Each family group – that is, each clan – had one or two tago spirits. During the time of the tago, the families provided the spirits with food. And during a farewell tour at the end of the tago period, a male member of the family would follow in their wake, bearing small gifts.
Until their next appearance 10 years later, the masks were kept in a hut in the forest. Women were banned from that part of the forest, at risk of being put to death if they discovered the secret of the tago. But basically, the time when the tago spirits appeared was a time of peace, when all disputes had to be suspended.
The last tago festival celebrated in its original form on Tami Island took place in 1895 and ‘96.