Pagunan Lunar Calendar

Part Three: The Art, Masks and Performances

Mask Materials and Performances

Pagunan dancing or performance masks were carved from darle, a common tree throughout Nullenesia, especially in moist, windward, mid-altitude locations where it forms the dominant species. It is a rapidly growing tree and under optimum conditions may reach ninety feet and two feet through at the base. The wood itself is soft, generally straight grained and carves very easily when green. When seasoned it is light, tough and moderately strong and is used locally for construction, but its use is limited as it is susceptible to termites and subject to rapid decay in humid conditions. Few darle masks have survived in good condition and almost all of the masks in this collection with maybe two exceptions are replicas carved from the originals or photographs and sketches. While the majority of the masks in this collection derives from pre-contact types it is likely that originals of the ones here were carved afterwards when steel blades and better pigments were available.

Darle, which we managed to obtain for carving these replicas of the performance masks, readily spalts becoming discoloured and softer and even easier to carve in the initial stages of decay. Informants told Schwartz and others that they would wrap pieces in leaves and bury them for a couple of months to facilitate carving. Rohban the artist used plastic bags instead and found the process works. Several of the replicas in the collection are carved from spalted darle.

Other fixed masks, coffin masks and the so-called watcher or surveillance masks were usually carved from otonka cedar, a harder, heavier wood. Otonka cedar is not a true cedar, just as the Norfolk Island pine, of which it is a distant relative, is not a true pine. It is a yellowish, close-grained wood that also carves fairly easily and can take fine details. It never was abundant and it was logged almost to extinction in the Nineteenth Century principally for ships' masts and joinery. It was probably not carved extensively by the Pagu until they obtained steel blades in the Eighteenth Century. The earlier coffin masks which date back almost to the time of the Great Cataclysm may have been worked with obsidian blades, a very painstaking process Rohban informs me.

Paints and Dyes

There has long been debate about the original colours of Pagunan masks and there are even those who suggest that the question cannot really be answered. There are opinions and certainly I have had disagreements with the artist employed to make these replicas. He has often insisted on brighter and what I thought were less traditional colours. Admittedly, it is a difficult question. Many of the original colours were dyes made from juices, extracts of roots and shellfish were subject to fading with the result that masks were frequently repainted or dyed. The clays and earths used for body painting, a popular practice particularly among children and young people, were also used on masks. The Big Island in particular was endowed with a variety of coloured clays. Colours were often changed at the whim of the artist and mask owners making it difficult to say that one colour scheme is more authentic than another. In addition the Pagu began using Western paints, oils and pigments not long after contact. Paint was an important trading commodity along with nails, cloth and steel blades, which led to the golden age of Pagunan carving. Anyone who has shaped wood with coralstone or experienced the frustration of carving details with obsidian will understand.


Before they had steel or other metals the Pagu, who had a neolithic technology, used stone blades, shells and obsidian for carving in the pre-contact period. Work was often tedious and great effort was required to produce a fine surface. With obsidian and a great deal of care and patience they were able to produce some very fine details. They had small quantities of hard stone which enabled them to shape limestone and coralstone but the art of dressing stone was lost at the time of the cataclysm.

As it had in other cultures the introduction of steel blades revolutionized carving; what took days could be done in hours or even minutes and it became possible to do things that could only be imagined before. Along with the fact that the Spaniard Samosa's men had killed a few of them, the Pagu remembered the knives they had, and enough steel, including a few knives had been left behind for the Pagu to learn what they could do. When, almost a century later, Captain Bloughart's ship arrived the first thing the Pagu wanted was steel blades. The captain and his men were able to obtain anything they wanted in exchange, except women, for small knives and metal scraps. The problem was that the Pagu had little to offer aside from fresh provisions and so much they wanted. One of the few things they found a ready demand for was masks. A mask would buy a knife or a piece of steel that could be fashioned into a blade, which could make more masks.

Thus the golden age of mask carving began. Gradually the Pagu acquired axes, adzes and saws, and began to exploit their rich but limited forests, which provided masts and timbers for ships and led to a period of prosperity.

Dancing and Performances

Those few outsiders who were privileged to observe Pagunan performances, notably at the No Moon Festivals, were practically unanimous in describing them as chaotic, cacophonous and anarchistic. Only Schwartz, who studied them sympathetically over a number of years, saw any pattern or coherence to them. He said one had to forget traditional ideas about theatre and choreography in order to understand them.

Performances began when the first person moved into an open area in the gathering and ended when the last person left. In between, performers would enter, leave and perhaps return seemingly at whim and perform often with no apparent relationship to what others were doing. In addition, some performers clearly seemed to do little but to interrupt, disparage and make fun of what others were doing or saying. Bedlam was how more than one observer described the events. Flute like instruments, drums, and in the post-contact period gongs and a large stringed instrument looking, but not sounding like a sitar were employed in an apparently random fashion.

Schwartz claimed that the events, while not planned beforehand, were to a large extent "spontaneously" choreographed, and that different parts of the performing area were like separate stages which could and did move around. He admitted that only after having things explained to him several times was he able to grasp it and appreciate the overall effect. It was not supposed to be the same performance for all spectators who typically viewed it selectively, like at a museum, and people depending on their interests often changed locations during performances.

Pagunan Art

As part of the orientalism that blossomed in Europe and America in the late Nineteenth Century, attempts were made to tie in Pagunan art with that of other cultures. Some saw resemblances to Pacific Northwest Coast Indian art; others saw Melanesian and even African influences. There were even attempts to see the influence of movements that postdated it. Anyone who studied the question seriously would soon conclude that no such relationships existed. The explanation is that Pagunan art is so diverse, some would say anarchistic, that similarities to almost any other art can be found, even art deco, which postdated Pagunan art by many years. The reason for the variation, the lack of strong conventions and traditions, goes back to the Great Cataclysm which to a large extent meant that art had to be reinvented.

Very little pre-cataclysmic art survived, at least into post-contact times. The best known examples were the stone ruins of the Lizard idols and related structures found in all the larger settlements. While these were not massive, the style was heavy and severe; authoritarian might be the word to describe them. These and other stone works, mostly foundation walls and paving, that have been uncovered are commonly decorated with a scale pattern motif, presumably in recognition of Lizard. There is no evidence that the Pagu used stone for construction after the cataclysm. It may be that the skills for working stone were lost, but with an abundance of wood there was no need to use stone. However, the fact that stone had been used extensively before also suggests the existence of a much more organized and disciplined society to undertake such projects.

For some time it was believed that nothing else remained aside from some shell and stone jewelry, but two cedar phalluses, probably part of Lizard worship, were turned over to missionaries by converts who had had them in their families for generations, One was destroyed for being contemptuous in the sight of God, but the other, acquired by a collector, stood almost three feet high, was intricately carved with seven coronal rings at the top, with delicate scales and an elaborate network of veins carved on the shaft. At the base two broken areas indicated that originally gonads were part of the cedar sculpture, and a hole through its length suggests that it once served as a fountain in Lizardian rites. In the early Twentieth Century a storm uncovered a richly carved house post and digging revealed a small settlement that had been buried in a mud slide, probably triggered at the time of the Big Wave tsunami. Many items including small wooden Lizard idols, bark paintings and household utensils were found apparently in good condition. The site was soon looted and the artifacts were sold to collectors. By the time Schwartz got there all he could recover were some house parts, ornate lintels and some tools such as hooks, awls and blades made of stone, shell and bone. The design and decoration he found was very formal, and repetitive, and most had the ubiquitous scale motif. He shipped everything to Germany where it later became part of the museum's collection.

Post-cataclysmic art is less abstract and formal, and more realistic and fluid. There are few straight lines or angles, for example. The new art was highly individualistic with each artist having his own style with seemingly little in common with others. The lack of a long standing tradition, and the popular respect that goes with it, may have allowed artists to digress freely without having to rebel or trying to offend. Schwartz sees two principal reasons for this radical break with the past. First it is quite likely that no master artists survived the cataclysm and any surviving apprentices were too busy with other things and did not follow up on their training in the old tradition. Their main concerns would have been practical rather than artistic. Secondly, with the demise of Lizardism and the destruction of the old elite, artists would have lost their principal patrons. The new egalitarianism may have led to a rejection of rich ornamentation and the heavy authoritarian style. It would seem that the Lizard idols were deliberately toppled. While perhaps most of the wooden buildings on the south coast may have survived the tsunami, the Pagu did not follow the old styles and motifs when it came time to rebuild or replace them even though the basic construction remained the same.

When artistic concerns consciously emerged again after a hiatus of a generation or so there was no tradition or overall philosophy. It was an artistic free for all with different builders, craftsmen and artists who had had no formal training or education in common doing their own things, so to speak. Their art has been described as a hodge podge within which it is possible to detect similarities with the forms, styles and decoration of many other cultures. The Pagu had no trouble with this lack of tradition. One disparaging critic complained that the Pagu were as permissive in art as they were in sex. The fact that no unifying tradition emerged after several centuries suggests a certain validity to the critic's claim.

Looking at the masks as a whole we can detect certain consistencies but certainly not consistently. There is generally a concern for curvilinear shapes with smooth transitions. The eyes are emphasized, except where depicting outsiders, and are set within larger, more or less concentric, rounded shapes. We cannot determine how important masks were before the cataclysm, none have been found, and Long Tongue made no mention of them that has come down. It is almost certain that there would have been coffin masks and quite likely surgeon's and skull face masks. There may have been masks used in association with Lizardism but not Lizard masks per se. The meanings of some of these masks could have been quite different then. The demon child, crone, as well as lizard masks, probably came into being after the cataclysm. The witch doctor mask may have been a late commercial invention.

Copyright ©, Sam Palocson; Kalayaan Publications, Vancouver 2006

Mask Replicas carved by Rohban; Photography by Katie Scarlet

This work was made possible through the support of the Ford Mountain Institute.   |  2011 Webmaster