New Ireland is famous for funerary art including kulap stone carvings, uli wood figures and malagan carvings and ceremonies.
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:
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.
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)
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.
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:
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.
Assemblage of Spirits, Idea and Image in New Ireland
edited by Louise Lincoln,
Published by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1987, ISBN 0-8076-1187-5,
George Braziller, Inc., 60 Madison Ave. NY, NY 10010 USA.
Essays on malagan ceremonies and carvings, historical background and contemporary carvers, color photographs of sculptures from many collections.
Revelation of the Malagans, the Ritual Art of New Ireland
by Peter Hallinan
published by Tribal Arts Gallery, 1990, ISBN 0-7316-9723-5
Catalog with short introduction to malagan ceremony and carving, black and white photographs.
Ritual Arts of Oceania, New Ireland, in the Collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, Switzerland,
by Michael Gunn, Published by Skira editore, Milan, Italy, 1997
Introduction to cultures and art of the Bismark Archipelago including main section on malagan ritual art. Black and white archival photos, color plates of collection with more text, maps include a detailed one of New Ireland on p. 38, bibliography.
Notes 1-3: New Ireland has many language groups. These terms appear in the literature, but many different ones are used.
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