New Ireland is part of the Bismarck Archipelago, situated north of New Guinea, and has an estimated population of 100,000. The Dutch first encountered the island in 1616, and today New Ireland is a province of Papua New Guinea. Nineteen different languages are spoken on the island, and it is divided by a chain of mountains into three distinct regions: northern, central, and southeastern.
The art of New Ireland traditionally centered on mortuary ceremonies and feasts to honor the dead. In northern New Ireland, the name given to these elaborate ceremonies is malagan, which is also the term used for the carved and painted sculptures associated with the ceremonies.
The preparation for a malagan ceremony begins after a funeral, and can last anywhere from a month to several years. During this time, performances are organized, feasts are prepared, and carvers are hired to create complex sculptures that usually incorporate multiple figures within its design (1978.412.712). Since these preparations require a great deal of wealth in the form of pigs and shell money, it is not uncommon for families to combine their resources and sponsor a ceremony for more than one individual.
The purpose of a malagan ceremony is to send the souls of the deceased to the realm of the dead. At the climax of the ceremony, the commissioned malagan sculptures are exhibited in temporary display houses. Each sculpture (1979.206.1474) honors a specific individual and illustrates his or her relationships with ancestors, clan totems, and/or living family members. It is intended to be a representation of an individual’s soul or life force, not a direct portrait. During the course of the ceremony, the malagan are treated with the utmost care, since it is believed that the souls of the deceased actually enter the sculptures. Once the souls leave the malagan (and the world of the living), the sculptures are no longer needed and are usually burned or allowed to rot. Only the masks and musical instruments used during malagan ceremonies (1979.206.1477) are preserved for future use.
Another mortuary ritual known as uli comes from central New Ireland. This ceremony, no longer practiced today, was traditionally performed upon the death of a leader. After his death, the village would sponsor a series of feasts and commission the creation of a small wooden nalik figure (1977.455). The nalik figure was meant to be a likeness of the deceased leader in ceremonial garb, and functioned as a receptacle for his soul. It was also hermaphroditic, having both a phallus and breasts, and had an oversized head, which signified his spirituality (since the head was believed to contain one’s spiritual power). At the conclusion of the ceremony, the nalik figure was transferred to the men’s ceremonial house, where it provided guidance for the village and its new leader.
In southeastern New Ireland, mortuary rituals involved limestone chalk figures known as kulap (1981.331.5). Kulap figures were traditionally kept in ritual houses, and functioned during funerary ceremonies as temporary vessels for the souls of the deceased. Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, the figures were broken, releasing the souls into the realm of the ancestors. Like the uli ceremonies, these rituals are no longer practiced in New Ireland.