A Sepik River mei mask

A striking object in the exhibition The People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50 is a mask from Papua New Guinea. Made of carved timber with shells set in clay, ochre, sago palm raffia and chicken feathers, and originally with two curving pig’s tusks, it is a mei mask, most likely made by the Iatmul people in the East Sepik River province.

Traditionally created for use in dance ceremonies, these masks, which represent ancestral figures, are fastened to the front of large conical costumes that are covered with ornament, including tapa cloth, foliage, shells and feathers.

But why is it in the exhibition?

The Family of Man

The mask was presented to the Sydney Opera House Trust by members of Papua New Guinea’s Defence Force. The presentation occurred at the Family of Man, an interfaith service to bless the new Opera House that was held in the Domain on the Sunday following the Official Opening. The service was arranged by dancer, researcher and writer Beth Dean and her husband, Victor Carell, who the previous year had organised the inaugural South Pacific Festival of Arts in Fiji’s capital, Suva. Held over two weeks in May 1972, the festival had brought together dance, song and poetry, theatre and the visual arts from 20 nations across Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Australia. Using this established network and their other connections, the pair had suggested inviting the participating countries to take part in the Opera House festivities.

Probably the most outstanding result of the very successful South Pacific Festival of Arts in Suva last year is the official invitation to many of the countries to perform in the Sydney Opera House during its opening festival this October …

In the ecumenical service each country has promised to give a local, beautifully-made handicraft at the ‘Offering’. Tonga will give an impressive cross in beautiful tapa 100 ft by 50 ft while Fiji will give masi [tapa cloth] on a comparable scale made in the shape of the Star of David … This recognition of the wealth of culture and entertainment in the South Pacific by the Opera House and the NSW Government is a matter of great satisfaction to all the countries concerned.

Victor Carell, ‘The Opera House sets the seal on the arts of the islands’, Pacific Islands Monthly, vol 44, no 6, 1 June 1973

The full contingent of 45 Papua New Guinea Defence Force members – 44 from the army and one from the navy – had marched in uniform in a Parade of Nations at the Official Opening of the Opera House. They were all traditional dancers who had auditioned for the opening at a competitive Sing-Sing (a gathering bringing together the country’s diverse cultural music, dance and performance) held in Port Moresby on 11 September. As part of the Opera House’s opening festival they also performed alongside dancers from Mornington Island’s Lardil community in the Folkloric and South Pacific Festival at the Opera House.

At the open-air Family of Man service the mask was presented by the youngest and oldest members – Eremas ToKalalau from Kavieng on the north-western end of New Ireland Island and Robert Iei from Popondetta, the capital of Oro province in the country’s east. At a ceremony held on 3 October they had been presented with the mask by Michael Somare, the then Chief Minister of Papua New Guinea, to bring to Sydney. Somare himself had grown up in East Sepik province and represented it in the country’s parliament, and would later become Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister.

A wider story

As well as symbolising the opening festivities, the mask represents a pivotal moment in Papua New Guinea’s history, and is a reminder of the wider historical context in which the Opera House’s opening took place. The Whitlam government had committed to fast-tracking the then Territory of Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia, a process that had begun in the 1960s and would be realised in September 1975. In 1972 the unification of the two administrative regions of Papua and New Guinea took place, and, following elections, Michael Somare was named Chief Minister. In 1973 Somare came to Australia and visited Canberra before the Opera House’s opening. He was then a VIP guest at the opening, at a lunch with the Queen at Government House the following day, and at the South Pacific performances. Also attending from Pacific nations were the Prime Minister of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, Hugh Watt.

In 1975 two official postage stamps were issued in Australia to celebrate Papua New Guinea’s independence. One featured iconic structures from both nations – the high roof form of a Haus Tambaran, a traditional ‘spirit house’ from the East Sepik region, juxtaposed against the sails of the Sydney Opera House. The stars of the Southern Cross unite both images, the top four appearing as palm tree leaves.

Gifts presented at the Family of Man service highlight the supreme cultural importance of gift-giving within Pacific cultures. A ngatu – or tapa cloth – measuring 29 by 15 metres, or 435 square metres, known as the Ngatu Me‘a‘ofa and presented by the Kingdom of Tonga, was recently unrolled fully for the first time in 50 years in a ceremony attended by the Tongan High Commissioner to Australia, HRH Princess Angelika Halaevalu Mata‘aho Napua ‘Okalani Tuku‘aho.

Displayed for several years in offices within the Opera House, today the Sepik mask, together with the Tongan ngatu, are housed in the Australian Museum. During the development of the People’s House exhibition, the Acting Consul General for Papua New Guinea, Mr Ponabe Yuwa, was consulted regarding cultural approvals, and sensitivities that should be observed when displaying the mask.

A distinctive feature of the exhibition, the mei mask serves as a powerful reminder of the wider social, cultural and political context of the Opera House’s opening, and of the resonance that it had throughout the Pacific region.

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Dr Scott Hill

Dr Scott Hill


Formal studies in architecture, along with travels through Asia and Europe, furthered Scott’s interest in colonial building, domestic design and the intrinsic relationship between architecture and landscape.

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