Hale Lahui
Research Officer, PNG National Cultural Commission

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with over 750 languages representing 750 ethnic groups. Papua New Guinea is made up of 24 provincial governments, and the nation is divided into four regions known as Momase, the Highlands, New Guinea Islands, and the Southern Region.

Body decoration is an intrinsic element of Papua New Guinea culture. There are certain underlying symbols and meanings of an ethnic group’s strength, group solidarity, and identity that are often expressed through this medium, which is prevalent among societies in both the Southern and the Highlands regions of the country. However, body decoration seems more pronounced within the communities of the Highlands.

Of the unique cultural and ethnic groups, an indigenous population called the Huli in the Highlands is perhaps the most well-known for their aggressive warring nature as well as decorative face makeup and costumes worn during battles.

For over a thousand years, the Huli have made their home deep within the Southern Highlands in the Tari, Koroba, Magarima, and Komo Districts. During their existence, their history and culture have mostly been transmitted orally from generation to generation. Until as late as 1936, they were unknown to the outside world. In fact, the colonial government hadn’t even had contact with the Huli until 1951. Because their existence has been left largely uninfluenced by the outside forces, the Huli provide a purer sense of cultural and anthropological understanding of traditional ways of life.

For the Huli, as it is for many tribes and cultures that can be traced back to antiquity, face and body art plays an integral role in rituals and festivals. Face painting has long been a dynamic feature, where different approaches are taken depending on the occasion. Since the Huli are culturally a warring people, they tend to favor awe-striking colors of bright yellow and red.

It has been suggested that the vibrant colors, along with the Huli’s full ceremonial regalia for war, not only instills a sense of fear in their opponents, but also helps create an altered state of consciousness in the Huli warriors themselves. Within this state of mind, the Huli sacrifice their fear and individually in the name of the mutual identity and collective interests of the tribe.

While warfare and pre- and post-war rituals have long been the common occasions for applying facial makeup in Huli culture, other specific gatherings, seasonal events, and ritualized activities, such as spiritual dances and initiation ceremonies, also call for facial makeup. The initiation ceremonies are especially important as they mark the rite of passage from child to adult within the tribe. During these events, the men take the lead role in creating exquisite facial designs to accompany their intricately designed headgear. However, during dances, which are referred to as mali, adults and children, including females, apply makeup that is worn throughout the performances.

The background color for Huli facial makeup is usually made from yellow clay called ambua. This background application is decorated with accents of red clay, hare, and white clay, momo. Vermillion, goloba, and black charcoal, ira punga, are also used to add decorative features and patterns to the overall design of the facial makeup. However, white is sometimes used as the backdrop for the designs, and clear tree oil, mbagwa, is also occasionally used when a color pigment isn’t desired.

While this makeup has historical roots and importance to Huli-specific rituals and cultural activities, in recent years, the Huli have become the subject of tourist circuits being run locally. To appease or entertain travelers, the Huli now often apply less-than-traditional colors using acrylic paint and other not-so-traditional materials.

Furthermore, instead of applying facial makeup for traditional activities, many are wearing the makeup daily as a form of show for tourists. These embellishments to and artificial usages for the makeup show why it is necessary to safeguard the cultural heritage that has traditionally been a part of Huli’s facial makeup.