Man as Art in the Greatest Show on Earth
During the incomparable Highland Festival, drums thunder and the earth trembles as brilliantly painted bodies stomp and chant in friendly intertribal “sing-sing” competition. Hundreds of men and women travel for days on foot or by boat, bus, or truck to gather for this annual traditional event, and spend hours applying lavish face and body paint and elaborate headdresses before the shows begin.
Anthropologists, journalists, and visitors mingle with locals representing many of Papua’s 700 tribal groups, most of which have their own style of body decoration that shows their powerful sense of tribal kinship. In an effort to halt centuries-old tribal rivalry and warfare – euphemistically called “Highlands football” – the government instituted these annual shows so that traditional enemies could meet on neutral territory under peaceful circumstances. Although the shows have inevitably become more commercial since their early days in the 1960s, there’s still nothing like them anywhere.
Ornate wigs are made from human hair and translucent plumes; wild pigs’ tusks adorn pierced noses; and masks painted in vivid primary-color striped and dotted patterns continue to excite the senses, defy description, and exhaust film supplies.