Mendi girl adorned with vibrant face paint – Art work by Lizzie Rigby Myself – photograph by malcolm kirk

Papua New Guinea is an Island in the pacific ocean located North of Australia and East of Indonesia. Papua New Guinea has a rich diverse cultural landscape and developed independently as the first contact from the outside world was only in the 1930’s. There is an estimated 7000 different cultural groups in Papua New Guinea and the diversity of these groups is fascinating and beautiful, all speaking different languages and performing unique customs. Nowhere else in the world is there this many tribal communities who part-take in body painting and adorn themselves with beautiful designs and costume pieces from the Huli wig men to the Chimbu skeleton tribe. The customs and artistic style vary dramatically, each tribe having a beautifully strong visual identity, and taking pride in their artistry. Groups travel far to attend local sing sings, in which they compete for accolades and attempt to prove themselves as the most fearsome warriors and successful tribe. Still to this day its thought that tribes in very remote places of Png have had no contact with the outside world.

Huli, Koroba, Tribe, Papua New Guinea -photo credit – Gorgi bonev

The Huli wig men as there name suggests practice the custom of making elaborate headdresses using there own hair and feathers of the beautiful bird of paradise making themselves attractive but also fearsome to rival clansmen. They also decorate themselves with embellishments such as the beak of a hornbill which symbolises strength and courage when in battle. The biggest drive it seems for these culturally diverse groups is to appear stronger, braver and better than neighbouring tribes – competition has never been so brutal with tribal disputes ending in murder and battle in some cases. There is something quite enthralling about the disparity between the beauty of the costumes, paint and cultural traditions and the reason behind the high level of artistry and creativity – gruesome survival. If there’s one tribal group that seem to encompass those themes it’s Chimbu skeleton tribe pictured below.

photo credit – Rita Willaert

Imagine walking in the thick, low, clouds of the Papua New Guinea highlands and through the dense fog, skeletal forms appear like some kind of vision from the underworld, it would feel like death was nearing. The chimbu and the Goroka tribe or Asaro mud-men take there fearful aesthetic deadly seriously – the more fearsome and other-worldly they look the more likely they will survive as rival tribes will run in fear. The Mud men of the Goroka tribe sculpt amazing masks from clay building them up over time – adding pigs teeth and other natural accessories making them look even more out of this world and frightening.

Mendi girl -Malcolm Kirk

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