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Masks brings spirit to life, by Ann Jarmusch

Cultural Masks

The Baining tribe’s fire dance is performed at night around and through a blazing fire by men wearing stylized masks representing various spirits. These spirits appear in dreams to the makers, adult males who live in the mountains of New Britain, the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago, just east of New Guinea.

This one, with huge eyes and a long, sharp proboscis, portrays a mosquito. The trumpetlike feature makes it a vungvung mask. Red pigment signifies masculine attributes; black, the feminine.

Something of an engineering feat, the lightweight mask fits over the head, supported by bamboo cane. It bears faint smoke smudges, said Rob Sidner, director of the Mingei International Museum, so it was probably worn in a fire dance, but not destroyed afterward, as is customary. The masks are made in secret by men only and worn by men honoring ancestors and boys undergoing initiation rites.

This mask is a masterpiece of its type because “it is so figurative and yet so abstract … at the same time,” Sidner said. “It seems both tribal and contemporary to me, like the (art of) Miro and Picasso, but it probably also arises from our subconscious: the archetypes of our own dreams.”

Ann Jarmusch, formerly the Union- Tribune’s architecture critic, writes about art, architecture and design.By: Baining culture, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Date: Second half of 20th century
Materials: Painted mulberry tapa cloth, wood, bamboo, raffia, feathers
Size: 160 inches
Location: Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park
Online video: uniontrib.com/fire-mask


In the late 1980’s Dr. Coufal travelled to New Guinea where he was involved in field research on rare neurodegenerative disease. That experience led him to spend time with the Baining tribe of eastern New Britain-the tribe depicted in the aforementioned account.

The famous “Fire Dance” is prepared for secretly by the men of the tribe, and is enacted on the “spur of the moment” (not in accordance with any pre-set calendar). As a consequence, it is a particularly rare opportunity for an “outsider” to attend the event. Equally challenging for an outsider is the fact that the dance is performed in a remote jungle location between midnight and sunrise the next day.

The following photographs were taken during Dr. Coufal’s time with the Baining tribe. He was especially impressed by the tribe’s naturalistic communion with their environment- a communion that extended beyond ritual dancers to acknowledge of local resources for treating medical conditions.

Mask Dance

Dr. Coufal at a secret men’s enclave where the fire dance masks were being prepared the day before the actual dance.

Mask Dance

A photo of a Baining tribesman taken by Dr. Coufal during the actual fire dance.

Medical outreach has continued to be an important part of Dr. Coufal’s practice. More recently, Dr. Coufal has spent time with neurosurgeons and orthopaedic spine surgeons in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, The United Kingdom, and Japan. Spending time in the operating room abroad often provides important new perspectives on treating common problems, and indeed new techniques and technologies have been adopted as a result. In a reciprocal fashion, Dr. Coufal has also been able to host visiting surgeons from Europe, China, and Japan at his primary hospital, Scripps Memorial La Jolla.

Medical Mission Trip to China