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From Head-Dresses to Head-Messages: The Art of Self-Decoration in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Paul Sillitoe
Man
New Series, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-318
DOI: 10.2307/2802807
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2802807
Page Count: 25
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From Head-Dresses to Head-Messages: The Art of Self-Decoration in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea
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Abstract

The Highlanders of Papua New Guinea are well-known for their colourful self-decoration. Why do they so ornament themselves? The Wola people of the Southern Highlands, the subject of this article, draw explicit parallels with birds when commenting on this question, notably the behaviour of certain birds of paradise. An attempt is made here to interpret their avicentric decoration as an allegory of their social world. The argument builds on their beliefs about the behaviour of these birds, notably their reproductive behaviour. They attribute their appearance, copied in their personal decoration, to this behaviour. The issue comes down to relations between men and women, which are closely constrained. Wola self-decoration, with its mimicry of the bird world, is interpreted as a commentary on relations between the sexes, pivotal to the stateless constitution of their society, and as one of the checks that ensures authority remains absent.

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