World Stories: Learning about Malagan carvings

Curator Laura Waters and Katherine Prior examining a New Ireland mask in our stores
Curator Laura Waters and Katherine Prior examining a New Ireland mask

I’m a freelance researcher who has been helping curator Helen Mears and the rest of the World Stories team improve our understanding of the museum’s malagan carvings from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. One of these carvings is a spectacular Big Mouth fish sculpture  which was given to the museum in 1931 by Ted Sansom, who was an Australian patrol officer in New Ireland.

Mr Sansom didn’t say where exactly he got the sculpture from, but he did provide a creation story for it that included some local words – words such as ‘uvalut’ for octopus and ‘nuff’ for fish. After a bit of research on similar sculptures in other museums, I thought it seemed likely that Brighton’s Big Mouth came from the part of New Ireland where the Nalik language is spoken. So I wrote to a Nalik specialist, Professor Craig Volker of Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University in Japan, asking him if he recognized any of Mr Sansom’s words. He responded instantly, saying that they seemed like Nalik words to him and suggesting that he run them past his Nalik-speaking friends from Madina, a village on New Ireland’s north-east coast. Also, as we were both soon heading to Australia for family reasons, Craig suggested that we try to meet up in Brisbane.

Malagan sculpture showing a Big Mouth fish carrying the figure of Lamesisi (WA504090)
Malagan sculpture showing a Big Mouth fish carrying the figure of Lamesisi (WA504090)

Come early September, I was sitting in Adelaide when I got an urgent email from Craig saying that if I could get myself to Brisbane the next day he could introduce me to some people from Madina who were in town for the birthday party of an old friend. So off I dashed, not really knowing what to expect.

It turned out to be a magical meeting! As I read out Ted Sansom’s story about Brighton’s Big Mouth, the Madina people enthusiastically corrected my mangled pronunciation of the Nalik words. They also confirmed the identity of Lamesisi – the male figure in the fish’s mouth. It was wonderful to think that, after being in Brighton Museum for nearly 80 years, our Big Mouth was finally going to get a more definite identity and to be tied more closely to the people who had created it.

I was especially happy to meet Jenny and Tahirah Homerang. They are the daughters of the late Michael Homerang, a master malagan carver from Madina. Jenny explained the villagers’ sadness that one of his last works had been sold out of the village. There are hundreds of malagan carvings in museums in Europe, America and Australia, but New Irelanders have few ways of accessing these collections even though they are a major part of their cultural heritage. We agreed that we would keep the communication channels open so that the Madina people have a say in how Brighton’s Big Mouth fish and the culture of malagan is presented to our visitors. We also hope to assist people in Madina with documenting future malagan ceremonies and accessing relevant malagans in other museums.

Malagan carving by Michael Xomerang
Malagan carving by Michael Xomerang

Looking back, I can’t help but think how lucky I was to be able to make this connection and also how gracious the Madina people were in sharing their stories and feelings with me.

Katherine Prior,
Freelance researcher

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