Funerary Carving (Malagan), late 19th–early 20th century
Northern New Ireland
Wood, paint, shell opercula; H. 100 1/2 in. (255.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972 (1978.412.712)
Spectacular and ephemeral, the malagan carvings of northern New Ireland are among the most complex sculptures in Oceania. The term malagan refers collectively to a complex series of ceremonies and the visual art forms associated with them. Various malagan rites mark nearly all important stages of an individual's life. The most numerous and impressive malagan carvings, however, are commissioned for display during the final memorial ceremony commemorating the deceased. Throughout life, individuals seek to acquire rights, similar to Western copyrights, to 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.
At death, some malagan are carved for the initial funerary ceremonies. However, the most numerous and spectacular carvings are created and displayed during the final memorial ceremony commemorating the deceased, which often occurs months or years after death. The figures essentially constitute a visual resume, representing the deceased's lifetime achievements in obtaining malagan rites. The human and animal images in the carvings depict supernatural beings associated with individual clans, each of which represents a different manifestation of the single life-giving force that sustains the clan. This large vertical malagan depicts a human figure emerging from the mouth of a fish, an image often symbolic of death at sea. Performance of the final malagan rites frees the living from their obligations to the dead. Afterwards, the malagan carvings, having served their purpose, are destroyed, allowed to rot, or sold to outsiders.