Overview: New Ireland
New Ireland, a large island in Melanesia lying northeast of the island of New Britain, has a rich cultural history in the Oceanic arts. Art from this region was often highly decorative, portraying elaborate forms and often tied to themes of ancestry, hunting, or spiritual ceremonies. Some of the most well-known artworks of New Ireland are malagan carvings, tatanua masks, and kulap sculptures.
Malagan ceremonies are the most large-scale and famous of the many events that take place within the region of New Ireland. These ceremonies are large, intricate cultural events that are often funerary in nature, held by the family of the deceased to communicate with deities and to honor those that have passed. They take place irregularly and typically take several days, requiring months or years of preparation.While a malagan ceremony is always held in the name of one or more people who have died in recent years, it is not at all a mortuary rite; many other interactions take place within the overall event, including announcements, repayment of debts, recognition of obligations, resolution of disputes, and many other customary activities.
Statues of the Deceased
Malagan carvings, now world-famous, are the wooden carvings which are created for use in these ceremonies to honor the deceased. Mannequins or statues representing the soul of the deceased are carved by local peoples to celebrate the dead person's characteristics. The deceased are remembered through the various depictions that are carved on the statues, each of which has a symbolic meaning. These carvings are elaborated with anthropomorphic symbols, which are thought to represent the link between the people of New Ireland, their creation, and the spiritual world to which they eventually pass on.
Malagan carvings, Papua New Guinea
Malagan wood carvings are created for use in malagan ceremonies.
A tatanua is a type of traditional wooden mask worn by ceremonial dancers during the malagan ritual. These masks are normally carved from lime wood, decorated with sugar cane fibers and wool or other animal hair, and painted using chalk and natural dyes. The type with a high headdress is created using a cane framework that was formerly then covered in bark, although later imported fabric was used as the covering. Besides the fabric, some masks also included imported optical brighteners, which made some nominally white areas slightly blue.
Malagan masks from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin
Masks were commonly used by dancers during the malagan ceremony to honor the spirits of the deceased.
The masks are frequently identifiable by the pierced ear lobes and prominent mouth, which is normally carved as if the mouth is open. The masks can also be identified by the asymmetrical hair design: the mask is left bare of hair on one side to mimic how a New Ireland man would shave his head to show that he was in mourning.
The tatuana masks of New Ireland were traditionally used in malagan ceremonies.
Traditionally, these ceremonial carvings were burnt at the conclusion of the event; however, during the colonial era, significant quantities of malagan statues and masks were collected by European administrators and can now be seen in museums all over Europe. In modern times most are now retained, as the carving tradition is known only by a few. Contemporary masters of Malagan form include Ben Sisia of Libba Village (northern New Ireland) and Edward Salle of Lava Village (Tatau, Tabar Islands, New Ireland). Many Malagan carvings are held today in museums around the world.
Kulap are small funerary sculptures produced in the Punam region of southern New Ireland. They were believed to contain the soul of the deceased person whom they were meant to represent, and they would be ritually smashed once the period of mourning was over. In more recent years, some have been sold in their intact forms to Westerners, particularly to German administrators. Kulap are carved from chalk limestone native to the region, and they are often painted; they are expressly produced by artisans from the Rossel Mountains.
The chalk limestone used for carving kulap is found in the river beds of the hilly Punam region of southern New Ireland. Carved kulap may sometimes be painted, and some of the figures are carved in stylized forms and painted in pure white color. The figurines generally depict the deceased in a sitting posture. Kulap were kept in small enclosures, and only specific people were allowed to handle such figures, as it was believed that the soul of the dead should be temporarily confined to these figures to prevent them from harming the village environment.
Kulap figurines, made of chalk or limestone, are currently preserved in many museums in Berlin, New York, Australia, and Africa.