Ceremonial Board (Malu)

Date: 19th century

Geography: Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik River

Culture: Sawos people

Medium: Wood

Dimensions: H. 75 x W. 24 x D. 6 1/2 in. (190.5 x 61 x 16.5 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969

Accession Number: 1978.412.713


The openwork malu boards of the Sawos people represent perhaps the ultimate expression of the vigorous curvilinear style that characterizes the art of the Middle Sepik River region in northeastern New Guinea. Although carved by the Sawos, malu appear primarily to have been traded to the neighboring Iatmul people, who used them in ceremonial contexts. Associated in Iatmul oral tradition with the origin of death, malu reportedly served to commemorate novices or initiators who died while in ritual seclusion as part of male initiation rites. The boards were displayed during public ceremonies marking the end of the initiation period, at which the women of the community first learned of the deaths.

The imagery of malu incorporates bird, mammal, and insect forms. The central face on the present work depicts the sago beetle, a large insect whose long proboscis appears as the nose. Images of hornbills, large forest birds that are an important totemic species, are incorporated into the complex openwork carving. A pig, an animal of great social and religious significance throughout New Guinea, appears at the base.