Sing-Sings of Papua New Guinea

Large-scale song and dance festivals in Papua New Guinea are known as Sing-Sings. As many as 100 regional, provincial, and national tribal dance groups, each with their own style of body decoration, travel for days on foot or by boat, bus, or truck to gather for these annual traditional events. Sing Sings are based on traditional large gatherings but these modern festivals were created by the government so that traditional enemies could meet on neutral territory. The first sing-sing was held in the town of Goroka in 1957.  Instead of fighting over ancient feuds and cultural differences, the idea was to get together and celebrate diversity and socialize peacefully. More than 50 years later these festivals are major events drawing locals as well as an increasing number of tourists. The most well known of the sing-sings is the Mount Hagen Culture Show in the Western Highland Province.

Body decoration and adornment are key features, using materials such as paint pigments, feathers, grasses, leaves, bone, shell and animal skins  – all used in creative variety.   Elaborate wigs are made from human hair and plumes, wild pigs’ tusks are used to pierce noses, and faces and masks are painted in vivid primary color patterns.  Each group has section of the showgrounds and sing and dance for 7-8 hours each day. (And its hot!!)

The people spend hours each day painting their faces and bodies and preparing their costumes.  Many bring materials with them and source them from the forest.   I particularly enjoyed watching the Huli Wigmen, the Skeleton Men, and the Mud Men get ready for their performances.

The Skeleton Men paint themselves head-to-toe in black ash, with a coating of vivid white clay outlining the head giving the impression of bones. They shuffle forward, twisted in extreme angles, presumably to frighten their enemies.

The Asaro Mudmen’s legend is that they were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the Asaro river. The enemy saw them emerge in the dark from the river covered in mud and thought they were spirits. As most tribes are afraid of spirits the enemy fled and the Asaro escaped. Legend also says that the mud from the river is poisonous, so instead of covering their faces, they make elaborate, very heavy masks that cover their entire heads with short ears, horns, sideways mouths and joined eyebrows. They remake these masks for each performance!

The Huli are the largest ethnic group in the Highlights and are known for their elaborate headdresses. In Huli culture, when a virgin boy is around 14 to 15 years old, they can pay to go to wig school. The master and students live isolated from the community and no one else is allowed in the school. It takes 18 months to grow hair for one wig and can only grow under the master’s spell. The boys stay until until they graduate, some as long as 10 years.

This entry was posted in Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Photography, Travel.


  1. Rita Florea May 7, 2018 at 1:08 am #

    Oh Ivy, these are INCREDIBLE photographs. Really stunning!

  2. Karin Leperi May 7, 2018 at 1:12 am #

    Wow Ivy, I am speechless. You really should pitch National Geographic Traveler for a photo essay on the sing sing. Simply amazing!

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 1:21 am #

      Coming from you Karin that’s a huge compliment! 🙂

  3. Patty Vogan May 7, 2018 at 3:21 am #

    Every time I see your work…I’m inspired. Thank you for sharing your talents with the world! You are so very gifted!

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 4:44 am #

      Thank you Patty – so glad you liked it!

  4. melissa May 7, 2018 at 3:31 am #

    Tremendous body of work here, Ivy. It really is stunning. Congratulations on both your skill in the field as well as your post-processing.

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 4:43 am #

      Thanks Melisa. Glad you enjoyed it! I think you were supposed to be on that trip??

  5. NANCY HOPWOOD May 7, 2018 at 3:48 am #

    Ivy. Spectacular as usual. Love reading your descriptions. I was there in 1991 and loved the Hagen festival. Nancy

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 4:43 am #

      Thanks Nancy 🙂 I’m no longer surprised to discover that you have been to places many years ago!!

  6. michele zousmer May 7, 2018 at 3:56 am #

    Photos brought back such memories to me. I was there 30 years ago and these people look exactly the same. The headdresses and the body painting are so colorful and interesting. Did you see any scarification? I remember lots of that. Such an interesting place. One of the most primitive places I ever visited, Looks like you really enjoyed!1 Thanks for sharing!

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 4:39 am #

      Michele – scarification was very prominent in the Sepik and I have several images in my previous blog titled “Kanganamun Village”. Wow- 30 years ago! You are amazing 🙂

  7. Iris C Roberts May 7, 2018 at 4:06 am #

    Ivy, what a wonderful presentation. I agree with Karin. This belongs in National Geographic Traveler. Bravo!

  8. Nancy Brandt May 7, 2018 at 5:44 am #

    Beautiful! Can’t add any more to all the other comments. Such talent!

  9. Judith Johnson May 7, 2018 at 11:26 am #

    Fascinating pictures! Which tour group did you go with? Judith

    • Ivy Gordon May 7, 2018 at 12:59 pm #

      Judith – it was a Jim Cline trip led by Karl Grobl. He is going back again this year and next – you would love it as an anthropologist!

      • Joyce November 13, 2018 at 6:15 pm #

        How can I locate the trip planner and leader?
        I’d like to go in 2018.

        • Ivy Gordon November 13, 2018 at 8:26 pm #

          I went with Karl Grobl of Jim Cline Photo Tours. Usually booked quite a bit in advance. Write to Kat and inquire Katherine Miner

  10. David E. Altschul May 7, 2018 at 2:23 pm #

    Amazing and beautiful images, Ivy.

  11. Ellen Massena May 7, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

    Absolutely Magnificent photos and descriptions! Totally captivating! Ivy you truly are amazing!!!

  12. Lucy Eagleson May 7, 2018 at 6:50 pm #

    Stunning images, beautiful words. I love seeing these worlds through your lens!

  13. Georgia May 7, 2018 at 8:04 pm #

    Gorgeous colors and such a great story. You are amazing!

  14. Peter May 7, 2018 at 11:56 pm #

    Wow, these are really amazing! Fantastic work!

  15. Diane Lumiere May 10, 2018 at 6:24 am #

    It’s quite hard to imagine this culture living simultaneously with ours, same time frame on the same planet! That’s the gift of travel and sharing these remarkable images. Is it cell phones and cars after the festival or are these truly isolated communities? Thank you. Simply stunning. Love the story telling too.

    • Ivy Gordon May 10, 2018 at 12:52 pm #

      Depends on which village Diane – some are still pretty isolated. But modernity is definitely encroaching.

  16. Diane November 5, 2018 at 2:04 pm #

    Ivy, Karen is right. The pictures are amazing and what an incredible amount of information!

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