New Ireland Malagan Panel - Papua New Guinea

Spectacularly carved and ornately detailed, this wooden panel carving was created as part of New Ireland’s malagan tradition, a complex series of rites that mark nearly all important stages of life. Throughout their lifetimes, individuals seek to acquire rights to the use of specific malagan images and the rituals associated with them. Men, in particular, compete to obtain rights to the greatest number of malagan, possession of which confers status and prestige. The largest and most impressive carvings, such as this example, are displayed during the final memorial ceremony for the deceased, which often occurs months or years after death. The carvings essentially constitute a visual resume of the deceased’s lifetime achievements in obtaining malagan rights. Performance of the final funerary rituals frees the living from their obligations to the dead. Having served their purpose, malagan carvings are destroyed, allowed to rot, or sold to outsiders.

The astonishing artistic skill displayed in the multilayered, overlapping forms of this panel carving leaves one in awe. The asymmetrical composition, combining a host of human and animal figures with tightly flowing and cage-like structures executed in meticulous openwork, is an absolute tour de force of woodworking. Detailed painting decorates and enhances every inch of the panel, raising the visual intensity to unbelievable heights. The powerful color scheme of red, white, and black, which unifies the panel so enchantingly from top to bottom, is broken only by a few bluish operculum shells set like precious stones in several of the figures’ eyes.

The human and animal images in malagan carvings depict supernatural beings associated with specific clans, each a different manifestation of a single life-giving force. The theme of birds and snakes in struggle, a common subject of malagan sculpture and ceremonial dance, represents the idea that the sky (birds) and earth (snake) preserve the natural order by their constant opposition.

19th century
Wood, shell (Turbo petholatus opercula), natural pigments
41 ¾” h
- Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright Collection, New York
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