‘We are all born and we all die. Every human being has some experience of this.’ – Victoria, 21

New Ireland, a province of Papua New Guinea in the south Pacific, is famous for its malagan tradition. Malagans are carved wooden sculptures displayed in special ceremonies which link the living and the dead. Tatanua masks are worn by male dancers at the ceremonies. Malagan ceremonies help return things to normal after someone has died. Visual symbols on the sculptures and masks remind everyone of their shared history.

Malagan sculpture

‘This malagan represents our clan … It was carved in certain steps. It uses special writing. Every colour is a word or saying.’ – Memaai (orator) Julius Bokawa Laisie

In the last 25 years the number of recognised master malagan carvers in New Ireland has reduced from 15 to 2, Ben Sisia and Edward Salle, and they are now old men. Their sons, Robin Sisia (born 1962) and Matthew Salle (born 1967) are also malagan carvers. Many malagan carvings and masks are now found far away from New Ireland in western museums.

Photo of 'Big Mouth' Malagan in World Stories gallery
‘Big Mouth’ Malagan in World Stories gallery

Brighton Museum has an important collection of historic objects from New Ireland including masks, malagans friezes and a Big-Mouth Fish sculpture. We are grateful to Jenny Homerang and members of the Nalik community for supporting our acquisition of the Bolxuaam sculpture from the Alcheringa Gallery in Canada.

Members of Art in Mind, a local art group for young people with experience of mental health issues, made a sculpture inspired by malagan.

If you commissioned a sculpture in your memory, what symbols might you include?