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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Malagan and other New Ireland art, Papua New Guinea

New Ireland is famous for funerary art including kulap stone carvings, uli wood figures and malagan carvings and ceremonies.

[malanggan circular filigree enclosing hornbill man, red, white and black pigments: 10k]

Figure 1: Malagan wooden mouthpiece with hornbill birdman. It is held in the dancer's mouth like the bird piece on the mask in Figure 3. Photo courtesy of a private collection.

New Ireland is part of the Bismark Archipelago, associated islands include Lavongai (New Hanover), the Tabar and Lihir Islands. Dutch navigators saw the islands in 1616. Germany claimed them in 1884. They are now a province of Papua New Guinea. (Melanesia map)

New Ireland is almost 300 miles (470 km) long. A mountainous spine separates the two sides with villages sheltered along the narrow coast. The hunters are famous for their ability to call sharks to their boats for the kill.

The three main cultural areas and their art forms are:

  1. Southern New Ireland had masks similar to Tolai ones from New Britain on the west and bark cloth costumes similar to ones from the Solomon Islands to the southeast.

    Kulap limestone chalk figures were commissioned from carvers in the Rossell Mountains. A carving was brought back secretly to the ritual house and kept with other figures. It held the spirit of the deceased until funeral rites were over and the potentially troublesome spirit returned to the ancestors. Then it was taken far away and broken or sold.

  2. Northern New Ireland on the Lelet Plateau and surrounding areas down to both coasts.

    Uli wood figures were displayed in groups of 2 or 3 in small shrines during funerals or fertility rites. They seem to be hermaphroditic. Similar carvings used over-modeled human skulls for the head.(1)

    Livika, the friction block "drum", is unique in the world. The player rubs his hand over 3 wood tongues producing a sound like a bird call. (2)

  3. Northeast coast and Tabar Islands are the center of the malagan tradition. This is the only area which continues its ceremonies and carvings. (3)

A malagan subtradition is represented by a carving. It is commissioned by the owner of its copyright, displayed once and then usually destroyed or sold. Once an owner sells a copyright, he can no longer use it. It is the ownership and transfers of these copyrights, not the carvings, that are important.

Each malagan has an ownership history and a story, sometimes a personal name, plus a complex of songs, chants, performances and ritual sites associated with it. Its design is old, but each carver reinterprets it.

When metal tools were introduced, carvers were no longer confined to static stone-carved styles. They created dynamic open fretwork forms whose amazing complexity appealed to European surrealists. Over 15,000 pieces were acquired by collectors and museums during the colonial period.

Figure 2: Malagan display piece with a horizontal base and 3 vertical figures holding birds. Photo courtesy of a private collection.

[horizontal malanggan beam inset with globes, topped with 3 male figures with crested hairdos holding bird staffs, black, white, red, yellow ochre colors: 29k]

Central elements are connected to each other by thin parallel rods and fretwork representing totemic animals and plants or the spears used to support a corpse in a death chair. Some extended ears and arms are articulated. Mortise and tenon joints make this possible and are unique in Melanesia. Cat's eyes are snail opercula. Carvings are painted with fine lines and strong colors.

Sponsors of a ceremony need enough wealth, especially pigs, to buy the copyrights, to pay, feed and house the carvers, to hire dancers and masks and to put on a series of feasts during the performance cycle. They usually borrow from relatives with the understanding that they will contribute later to the relatives' ceremonies.

Malagan displays are put on to honor the deceased, during the boy's initiation/circumcision rituals and on a smaller scale for other events. Groups of copyrights may be gradually transferred from one set of owners to the next over a number of years marked by ceremonies.

Carvings displayed at the malagan house in the courtyard of the village cemetary include:

Figure 3: Malagan helmet mask (tatanua). The crested hairstyle used to be worn by young men. Masks are different on each side so when the line of dancers turns, they present a whole new appearance.

[tatanua wood helmet mask with thick fiber crest, multi-colored geometric star yarn pattern on side, bird mouthpiece: 30k]

Masks used in a malagan ceremony include:

Initiation ceremony paraphrased from Michael Gunn's forward to Peter Hallinan's Revelation of the Malagans:

At dawn, masked warriors arrive from the sea. They guard the bearer of a heavy, towering mask whose spirit purifies the graveyard and Malagan house for the public ceremony. Malagan sculptures are taken out and fastened to the display house. Each owner must call out his ownership rights back through the generations. When all the Malagans are accepted and displayed, ancient songs belonging to each one are sung.
The slit-gong drum is struck. A fence falls away in front of the Malagan house revealing a raised platform with the central Malagan sculpture and 2 senior dancers wearing feather masks of the dead. As they rise, shaking their rattles, the drum sounds again. Below, the two rows of initiates began their dance, accepting their responsibilities in their culture, for the living and for the dead.

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Links in this site:

Books used to research this series.

Notes 1-3: New Ireland has many language groups. These terms appear in the literature, but many different ones are used.

Order now: Art Dealer in the Last Unknown, Ron Perry and New Guinea Art, the early years: 1964 - 1973 by Carolyn Leigh and Ron Perry, 320 pages of adventure, over 450 early photographs - join Ron in the jungles of New Guinea on his search for tribal art.

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Figure 4: Art areas of Melanesia (map of New Guinea and adjacent islands), New Ireland Province, PNG is at 2. Link to the article for explanation of other numbered areas.

[map of Melanesia: 10k]

More articles/photos of NEW GUINEA MASKS:

Middle Sepik River | Angoram | Kambaramba | Tambanum | Hunstein | Imbando and Taway | Mumeri | Blackwater River | Lower Ramu River | Middle Ramu River | basket yam masks | wooden yam masks | Baining | Sulka | Tolai dukduk | Malagan | Papuan Gulf | Gogodala | String and Things | Skin as Ground... | more INDONESIAN MASKS: Bali and Java | Dyak

Order art on-line: dealers and galleries
Wholesale information for dealers


Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0