Art, Life and Death in New Ireland
The island of New Ireland lies in the Bismarck Archipelago, northeast of New Guinea in the southern Pacific Ocean. It has sustained human life for millennia, going back to the great migrations from the Asian subcontinent. Charted and so named (for its relation to the neighbouring larger island already christened New Britain) by the English navigator Philip Carteret in 17667, New Ireland thereafter became a port of call for whaling ships, principally American, requiring fresh water and provisions. By the mid-nineteenth century, European entrepreneurs were establishing coconut plantations there, and in 1885 Germany claimed the island, along with other Pacific territory, as a colonial protectorate. Following World War I, the island was given over to Australian governance. The establishment in 1975 of the independent state of Papua New Guinea, of which New Ireland forms a part, marked the end of government by Europeans, although the island and its inhabitants are now inextricably part of the global economy.
What is known of past ways of life in New Ireland exists in the memory of older people and in the written accounts of early traders, missionaries and anthropologists. People live in small, scattered villages, largely sustained by gardening and fishing. Although some traits of social organisation, economic activity and religious belief are held in common, there is considerable diversity as well (no fewer than seventeen languages remain in use on New Ireland). In the northern part of the island, social life and thought was dominated by an elaborate cycle of ceremonies known as malagan, held to honour ancestors and the recently deceased.
When someone dies, family and friends mourn intensely. After a brief ceremonial display, the body is buried, cremated or put out to sea in an old canoe. But death is not ‘finished’ until the malagan cycle is completed, and these events are so complex and so expensive they require months or even years to arrange. During the intervening period, family and clan members prepare for the culminating event, inviting guests from distant villages, organising performers to dance and sing, accumulating food and gifts for the guests, and, perhaps most importantly, commissioning artists to make an appropriate sculptural display. Malagan organisers hire the best artists they can afford, sometimes bringing a well-known carver from a distant village for a period of months to carry out the work.
New Ireland malagan sculpture (the term is applied to the sculptures as well as the ceremonies) is highly distinctive and dazzlingly beautiful. Figures, friezes and dance masks combine multiple human and animal forms into complex assemblages, and surface painting in detailed geometric and floral patterns further confuses the eye of the uninitiated. Yet the configurations of form and pattern are anything but random. Malagan images generally originate in dreams, and in a system of ownership often compared to the legal notion of copyright, the particular combination of elements and patterns are the exclusive property of the dreamer unless he or she sold that right to someone else...
excerpted from ”Art, Life and Death in New Ireland” by Louise Lincoln, Director of DePaul University Art Museum and author of Assemblage of Spirits: Idea and Image in New Ireland.
The full essay and several examples of malagan sculpture are available in Alcheringa Gallery’s exhibition catalogue Malagans: The Ceremonial Art of New Ireland, which can be purchased through Alcheringa Gallery as part of this online exhibition.