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Malagan Pole


Malagan Pole
Malagan Pole
19th century
Polychrome wood
Gift of the Morse Foundation

Key Ideas

New Ireland
Malagan Pole

Discussion Questions

New Ireland
New Ireland is a long, thin island in the Pacific Ocean, located north of Australia and just south of the equator.1 New Ireland is a province of Papua New Guinea (pop-poo-ah noo GI-nee) and the second largest island in northwest Melanesia. It forms part of the Bismarck Archipelago. Tropical rainforests cover much of the island, and a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and sea animals live there. Mammals are scarce, except for marsupials, pigs, and dogs. The importance of the natural world to the people of New Ireland is evident in their traditional social structure, mythology, festivals, and art.

One of the central events in the social, economic, and aesthetic life of New Ireland communities is the malagan, a festival held in honor of deceased clan members. The elaborate funeral rites and festivities commemorate ancestors as well as help the souls of the dead depart the world of the living and acclimate to the world of the dead. The malagan festival, which may be held several months, or even years, after a person's death, brings together large social groups and provides an opportunity for the people to express solidarity.

Elaborately carved sculptures are important aspects of the malagan festival. On the northern coast of New Ireland a clan member commissions a carver to make special sculptures to be revealed during festival performances.2 Depending on the number ordered, a single commission may take several months to complete. The ritual process of producing malagan sculptures is complex and time-consuming; it is as much a part of the festivities as the performance itself. After the sculptures are carved and the wood has dried, they are placed in an enclosure built in or near the cemetery. Sea-snail shells are placed into the eye sockets of the figures. Only then can the sculptures be painted.

The dramatic unveiling of the malagan figures at the end of the festivities is accompanied by generous feasts and dances at which the spirits of the dead are believed to be present. The sculptures serve little or no practical function after a festival has ended and they are often left to rot.

Roll over the image to see specific attributes from the Malagan Pole

Malagan Pole line art

Line Art Illustration of the Malagan Pole
Full page printable version

A woman stands on the head of a wild pig A man crouches on a frigate bird A pair of dark, elegantly decorated frigate birds face the "eye of fire." Complex geometric design, called a mataling, or "eye of fire." An eye inlaid with snail shell

Malagan Pole
Standing more than eight feet tall, this malagan pole is made up of many intricately intertwined animals and humans. At the top, a man crouches on a frigate bird, and at the bottom, a woman stands on the head of a wild pig. In the middle of the pole is a complex GEOMETRIC design, called a mataling (MAH-ta-ling), or "eye of fire." At its center is an eye INLAID with snail shell. A pair of dark, elegantly decorated frigate birds face the "eye of fire." The lengthy tail feathers of the upper bird are held by the man and blend into the feathers of another bird at the very top of the pole. The lower bird's tail, held by the woman, hangs in front of the pig at the bottom of the pole.

White, orange-red, and black pigments are the main colors of this pole, and traces of a bright yellow pigment are visible around the central design. When this pole was made, most pigments were still made from natural materials: white from lime powder, red from red ocher, black from charcoal ashes or burned nuts, and yellow from vegetable matter.

The designs on the wild pig's head show the northern New Ireland painters' preference for breaking down large surface areas into small, decorative, patterned parts. The boar's ears, eyelids, and long snout are all striped. Around its large white tusks are many small teeth, indicated by orange-red lines. When metal tools were introduced, carvers were no longer confined to static flat styles. They created dynamic, open fretwork styles whose amazing complexity appealed to early 20th century European artists.

The human figures on the malagan probably refer to ancestors, and the birds to air; together they allude to the interrelatedness of all things. Because each malagan commemorates a specific individual in a particular ceremony, its meaning is known only to those present at that ceremony. The same image may mean something different to everybody. For example, to one person the pig at the bottom might stand for the community's source of food and to another it might recall the mythic story of the monstrous pig Luana.

1 Contact with Europeans began in the early 1600s when Dutch merchant shops began sailing into the channel between New Ireland and New Britain to take on fresh water. In 1767 Phillip Carteret landed there and took possession of the island for Britain, naming it New Hibernia (New Ireland). Return to Text
2 A carving is commissioned by the owner of a copyright of a design. The owner may sell or give a copyright to another, but then can no longer use it. It is the ownership and transfer of these copyrights that gives significance to the carved objects. Return to Text

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