Huli Artistic Expression

by Ron Meshanko

A Huli wigman playing panpipes, one of the major forms of artistic expression among the Huli.
A Huli wigman playing panpipes, one of the main forms of artistic expression among the Huli.

The Huli have a variety of artistic forms of expression. Their most graphic and popular means of expressing themselves is bodily decoration. Men and women invest a great deal of time and energy in the beautification of their bodies. Most men and women wear some facial paint almost every day. Little daubs of red or yellow paint are placed at the very corner of the eyes, over the eyelids or under the eyes, and on the tip of the nose. They apply greater amounts of body and facial paint during major celebrations like dances, ritual events, and courtship parties (Dawanda)

Huli Dress

The essential male dress is comprised of a thick, red, woven belt. a long woven apron that hangs almost to the knees, and a shorter apron to cover the pubic area. Another short apron with dangling pig tails is worn over the other short apron during dances and special events. Men cover their buttocks with a bunch of cordyline leaves specifically selected for their shiny red and green hue, which are bound together by a rope and held in place on the belt with a small, whittled stick. Huli men are scantily dressed in comparison to Huli women and men of other Highlands societies.

Men enhance their basic outfit by adding various combinations of natural or man-made ornaments to their daily dress. Men commonly wear a kina shell breast plate, earrings, neck beads, a cowrie shell necklace, a horn bill and pigs teeth necklace, and occasionally a nasal septum shaft and/or cassowary quill earrings.

The main dress for women consists of a long grass skirt that hangs below the knees, and is sometimes dyed black. Most women wear a European smock purchased at Tari town. Rarely does a young women wear the traditional woven smock to cover her breasts. Young women are forbidden to expose their breasts; only older women are permitted to appear without an upper covering. Huli women wear less bodily decoration then men. They do not wear leg bands, nasal septum shafts or wigs. They usually wear a kina shell breast plate, neck beads and flowers in their hair.

The piece of clothing common to both men and women is the string bag. Huli women are usually seen carrying their string bags full of sweet potatoes or holding babies on their backs with the strap firmly in place across their foreheads. Huli men wear their string bags on their backs with the strap crossing their chests from the left to right shoulder and knotted in the middle of their chests. Typical items found in the men’s string bag include sweet potatoes, tobacco and a smoking pipe, a packet of red paint, a mirror and money.

Huli Body Art and Dances

Huli wigmen dressed in festive traditional attire performing the Mali dance.
(Photo courtesy of Ursula Wall)

Huli body art is spectacularly displayed at the three main types of Huli dances. Men are usually the main attraction at these dances, although a few girls do form their own dance line at Mali dances. The Mali is the most frequently performed dance, being performed at special occasions such as church dedications, ordinations to Christian ministry, Christmas and Easter celebrations. The Mali used to be performed during Toro sorcery rites, Haroli bachelor initiation rites, Tege fertility rites and other Huli rites. 1

The Mali dance consists of a simple jumping step which the dancers silently perform to the beat of drums carried by the dancing men in their hands. The amazing aspect of the dance is the splendid decoration of the dancers. The men wear the manda hare wig which is either bright red or black and is adorned with splendid plumes of the cassowary and cock-a-too birds, and especially the dainty and colorful feathers of the bird of paradise. The men’s faces are painted entirely with yellow paint and highlighted with various amounts of red, white, and blue paint. Each man has his own unique facial design. Their bodies brilliantly shine from the tree oil which was rubbed all over them. The hago belt made of woven cane around a tree bark base, is worn tightly around their torsos causing them to stand erect with full chests.

Male mali dancers wear as much ornamentation as they can acquire by purchasing or loan in combination with their usual daily dress that has been renewed with a fresh application of red paint. Female mali dancers wear their daily dress as well as tree kangaroo fur, flowers, and a few feathers in their hair. Their faces are painted red with yellow, blue and white highlights. Tree oil is smeared all over their bodies. They wear some form of breast covering.

Gumia dancers wear the same ornamentation as the mali dancers but paint their entire bodies with broad stripes of red and white paint. Sometimes yellow paint is applied to a man’s chest and torso. The gumia dancer was traditionally performed by two silent male dancers who beat their drums as they danced backward and forward in large steps. The two men dart back and forth covering a distance of approximately six feet, as they inched their way to their destination point. Gumia dancers are now used as procession leaders at festive Catholic worship rites. They formally only functioned at Huli fertility rites.

The Pelagua dance is unique in that the male dancers don women’s clothing. The men wear the women’s long grass skirt as well as a long grass wig underneath the unusually large and elaborate head-dress consisting of a variety of beads and feathers. Their faces are painted with red and black paint, while their chests are painted with stripes of red and white paint. Their legs and forearms are painted white and their feet and hands red. The men also wear the men’s belt, kina shell, earrings, cassowary necklace and dagger, although they do not wear the hago girdle and men’s aprons as mali dancers do. Unlike the other two Huli dances where the men remain silent as they beat their drums, the Pelagua dancers chant and beat their drums simultaneously. The dance is usually performed with the three men circling around an imaginary point, bending and straightening their backs, beating their drums and chanting as they do so.

The exact context for the Pelauga dance is uncertain, although it can be said that it was only performed during Huli rituals, most likely placation rituals to powerful deities. It is not considered proper by the people to perform this ritualist dance during Christian services. The Pelagua dance is rarely performed amongst the Huli since the arrival of Christianity. It was performed in 1983 at the Tari police station dedication since an emphasis was placed on the celebration of local culture.

Three other important Huli dances include the Tiri yagua, Tege Pulu, and Ega Kiliapa dances which are performed much less frequently than the other three main types of dances. Each of these three minor dances will be described in the Ritual section.

Musical Instruments

Bodily decoration as displayed in the three main types of Huli dances is the only visual artform, although the people do some simple caring of their bamboo pipes, stabbing spears and more elaborate paining on their Homali grave boxes. Haroli bachelor braid (puluyaba), and fences. The Huli have developed various aural art forms as evidenced in their musical instruments: gawa, a small double_stringed wood bow; hiriyula or bamboo jew’s harp; gulu pope, a bamboo panpipe; pilipe, a small reed pipe, and the layano tabage or hollow, hour-glass shaped, wooden drum. The drum is either high pitched (tombene) or low pitched (dinano).

The panpipes are played by adult males as a past-time. The reed pipe is played by young men during courtship. The drums are played by dancers during rituals. The low pitched dinano drum is the only drum use to accompany verbal communication. 2 It is used to accompany the chants of spirit men during rituals as seen in the Pelagua dance.

The hiriyula and gawa are unique in that they are used to convey verbal messages. The jews harp is played by one sweetheart to another to express love; or by a lone sweetheart who is pining for his or her lover. The hiriyula is also used to describe past or current events. The following is a transcription of a hiriyula performance concerning advice about marriage given to a girl and her old mother by another woman:

Oh mother, daughter, the cumulus cloud from Wanda; he is still coming.

Oh mother, daughter, the cumulus cloud from Eganda is still coming; he is still coming.

Oh mother, daughter, the cumulus cloud from Irabi is still coming: he is still coming.

Oh mother, daughter, the cumulus cloud from Gewande is still coming: he is still coming.

Oh mother, daughter, au au au au au au. 3

This verse, which is typical of Huli poetic structures, suggests to the young girl that she has plenty of time to make up her mind before she marries, for the boys are still coming from all around the countryside to see her.

The gawa is played by a sweetheart in the presence of his relatives to impress upon them the sincerity of his love. It is also used to tell stories about past clan battles, tribal history, descriptions of the countryside and natural phenomena. The following is a transcription of a gawa performance that relates a story about the burning of gardens during battles between rival clans:

Wari bawa alight-burning, sorry,

Warime alight-burning, sorry,

Hubiago alight, burning, sorry

Dalaga alight-burning, sorry,

Hara bawa Hayare alight-burning, sorry.

Embe baea Embeli alight-burning, sorry,

Hayare alight-burning, sorry,

Angi bawa Mali, alight-burning, sorry,

Ali bawa Ibala alight-burning, sorry. 4

Huli man playing a Jew's Harp.
Playing the Huli Jew’s Harp.

The changing names in each line are the names of the places which have been set alight by the enemy clan. The word bawa refers to a species of tree that is used for firewood because it burns easily. The word is used to suggest the houses burn very quickly and easily. The word Mali in the second to last line suggests that the burning raids took place at the time of the annual Mali dance or Christmas time. Sorry in each line is actually a moaning wail used to mourn the dead, suggesting the great sorrow of the player over the destruction of the houses in each place.

All of the five musical instruments are still commonly used by the Huli. Gawa performance is considered by the Huli to be one of their most valuable artistic and aesthetic musical achievements. 5

The various artistic expressions of the Huli reflect their cultural values and lifestyle. 6 The soloist nature of their music reveals their strong individualistic nature (( Ibid, p. 205. ) The content of the gawa and hiriyula songs or poems express their strong feelings of love as well as their keen interest in Huli history, geography and folk-lore. The concern for bodily decoration indicates the value of the individual person and personal beauty in Huli society. The use of so many natural objects in bodily decoration as well as in fulfilling basic human needs indicates the close relationship of the Huli to the earth and nature.

Photo courtesy of Ramdas Iyer Photography

  1. Ibid, p. 43; Huli of Papua, pp. 102-103. []
  2. J. Pugh-Kittingau, “Huli Langauge and Instrumental Performance”, Ethnomusicology, 21:2 (1977), p. 200. []
  3. Ibid, p. 217. []
  4. Ibid, p. 225. []
  5. Ibid, p. 224. []
  6. The basis of Huli music is language. The Huli do not have a specific term equivalent to the English word “music.” Except for drumming, which is denoted by permutations of the verb root bá ‘to hit’, all types of musical performance are described with expressions involving words based on lā ‘to say’. Huli believe that thoughts form in a person’s emotional heart (bú), located in the physical heart (búbìri) in the chest. Thoughts rise in breath from the lungs to the mouth and then roll off the tongue as words. The linguistic expression of poetry characterizes most of their music, including the performance of solo musical instruments, such as the gàwa bow, the bamboo jew’s harp or jaw’s harp hìriyúla—which are played by both men and women— and, to a lesser extent, two of the gùlupóbe panpipes blown by men and women— and, to a lesser extent, two of the gùlupóbe panpipes blown by men.” Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan, An Ethnomusicological Discussion of Bì Té, the Chanted Tales of the Huli, Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands. ANU Press. pp. 114-115 []