Masking and Ritual Theater of the Baining and Gimi Peoples of Papua New Guinea


Art of the Chachet, Kairak, and Uramot Baining of New Britain, Papua New Guinea
by Dr. George A. Corbin


Ceremonies of the Gimi: Photographs
by David Gillison


Gimi perform short theatre sketches at night during celebrations for marriages and initiations. (See "Living Theatre in New Guinea's Highlands," National Geographic Magazine, August 1983.) The rites last for weeks, and the Theatre provides night-time relief from the day's exhausting ceremonials and distraction from the e heat and smoke of low, crowded huts.

A sketch rarely lasts more than 15 or 20 minutes and is performed by either men or women. When the scenario includes male and female parts, one sex im personates the other. Transvestism and sexual license are conventions of Gimi ritual and inversions of daily life, whereas in actuality the sexes are often openly antagonistic and traditionally live in separate houses and work apart. The "macho" athlete of our society who dresses as a woman during a charity burles que show would be readily understandable to the Gimi.

Subject matter for the playlets and farces runs the entire gamut of Gimi life and experience: tales of warfare feuding, adultery and courtship; domestic bat tles between the sexes; visitations by ghosts and forest spirits; depictions of birds and marsupials in the forest or the movement of tall trees in the wind; and Gimi versions of Miss Manner's Guide to Correct Behavior. Costumes and props are made from feathers, marsupial furs, leaves, flowers, berries, mosses, barks, and colored clays. Though these materials are discarded or dismantled after use, leaving no collectible artifacts, Gimi theatre is, to us, an art form as complex and full of interest as the fabulous lowland sculptures now housed in the world's museums.

Gimi say their theatre has several purposes: to instruct newlyweds and initiates, to entertain and enliven weary guests; and to create reputations for the best players so they may increase the prestige of the whole village. Theatre also gives an actor the opportunity to "catch the eye" of a man or woman in the audience and to begin a seduction. In Gimi parlance, the highest praise of a performer is to say that he or she has "killed" the audience who, in response, are "compelled" to thrust money or small gifts into the performer's hands or under his waistband. Tradition requires that the actor "return" what he has received the next day in double the amount. This exchange of money or goods symbolizes another, invisible one in which the actor "steals" some part of his audience's spirit or life-force—he steals their hearts, as we would say—and then gives back twice what he or she has taken.

Groups of players rehearse and assemble costumes in the forest during the day and circulate among the men's and women's houses at night, hoping to be chosen from the crowd of performers that waits outside. When men who sponsor the initiation of young boys invite a group of unmarried women to perform in the men's house, it is one of the few times that women are allowed inside a men's house. But men of all ages routinely perform in women's houses. During the weeks of ritual celebration there is a general atmosphere of sexual license and many men put into action their thoughts of "winning" a woman and of beginning liaisons. In the crowded women's houses, looks are exchanged and assignations furtively arranged. It is not uncommon for a mother of several children to set up a tryst with a young boy and for the lovers afterwards to go their separate ways as if no intimacy had occurred. One old man remarked that life in Unavi is hard and that these occasional peccadillos help men and women endure their lot.

When Australian Patrol Officers first entered the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea in the late 1940s and early 1950s, ritual theatre was widespread. Today it is restricted to remote parts of Unavi and neighboring areas. In the Gimi ritual cycle, the renewal of all forms of life is closely tied to human fertility and sexuality. This aspect of Gimi cosmology has been strongly opposed by Fundamentalist missionaries who are now ensconced almost everywhere in the province. According to many missions, it, is a "sin" for villagers to take part in ritual theatre, even as spectators. Papua New Guinea has been an independent country since 1976. Nationalism and the desire for modernization seem to have accelerated the disappearance of this unique ritual art.

David A. Gillison, Department of Art Lehman College,
The City University of New York


Above: In this senario, an old man meets a young boy who asks where he is going. "I'm going to find pure water," he says. from this interchange the audience knows that this performance is drawn from a myth that describes the origin of birds of paradise and, by extension, of life itself. This myth, like origin myths in many cultures, graphically retells the cycle of life. Here, in the opening stages of the story, the old man prepares to follow the boy's mother into the forest. Later in the myth, not enacted here, he will kill the mother and the boy and later, in turn, be killed by the boy's sister. The sister will then set off on a long journey that will lead to her brother's rebirth as a bird of paradise.


Before pacification in the highlands, when a war broke out between villages and one side was routed, the survivors fled to the forest. Here, covered in white to represent that they are already spirits, a group of boys play eternally lost orphan children. In this re-enactment the boys are spirits living with Kuedtho, the pheasant pigeon. Kuedtho, large ground birds, make haunting calls that carry far through the forest. The humanlike overtones of the calls so reminded a Bigman from Ubaigubi of a long lost brother that he banned the killing of all Kuedtho on his clan land. The Bigman said that when he heard the birds he thought of all the orphans from the past wars, telling the silent forests that they were lost, alone, and hungry.


Meanings behind the stories told in Gimi playlets are sometimes unknown even to the actor's fellow villagers. Here, a group of girls rub sections of bamboo between their palms to make a high-pitched rustling sound, while singing a song. After their performance, several of the girls told me that they were echoing the sounds that cicadas make as evening falls when good weather sets in after a period of rain. A little later some older women said that the piece was really a story of a mother who accidentally put her baby down on an ant's nest and then had to jump up and rub the ants off her crying child. Several men in the audience shrugged and laughed,"Oh it's nice, but it has no story."


Clan elders garbed as spirits of the forest signal their arrival with the sounds of their bamboo flutes. The Krai (call) of these most sacred flutes, known as the "mothers of the flutes," a deep, cavernous sound, resembles the distant rumble of a rushing mountain stream.