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Malangan carvings, now world-famous, are the wooden carvings which are created for use in malangan ceremonies. Traditionally these were burnt at the conclusion of the event; in modern times most are now retained.      Source: Rita Willaert/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Honoring and Negating the Dead through Malangan in Papua New Guinea


The term “malangan” has a dual meaning. It can either represent the elaborate memorial festivals held in New Ireland (Papua New Guinea) in honor of deceased members of a clan, or it can refer to the carvings and representations made for these festivals which are of a beauty and complexity unparalleled in Oceanic art. Viewers at the Met Museum in New York and the British Museum in London are regularly dazzled by large scale malangan pieces without fully understanding their real functions or connections to the social life and belief system of the people of this part of Papua New Guinea. The people of New Ireland held these ceremonies to honor their dead and ensure that the spirits of the dead were fully removed from their societies, while also using the malangan to maintain harmonious networks among various clans and to even reinforce land distribution claims.

Indeed, viewers of these spectacular pieces at the Met and British Museum are lucky, as malangan (also malagan or malanggan) sculpture is usually burned immediately after the ritual ceremony to protect against sorcery that can occur through the sculptures. Anthropologists of the past often felt, however, that these works were of such aesthetic quality that they had to be preserved and displayed in Western museums.

Malangan masks on display. (Public Domain)

Malangan masks on display. (Public Domain)

Malangan sculptural forms can be followed back as late as the 17th century as the first Western depiction of malangan art dates back to 1643 from the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. One feature common to the sculptures is the ingenious use of negative space. There is usually a human or animal figure separated by rods from surrounding aspects of the sculpture. The rods themselves are intricately carved and painted with patterns in red, black and white. The complexity of the carving and coloration, along with the negative space, helps to represent the interrelationship between the material and spiritual, the seen and unseen, which still dominates life among many of those of New Ireland.

Most malangans are meant to directly represent deceased clan members, usually depicted as seated or squatting, while normally only snakes, birds and fish are also presented. These seem to represent earth, sky and water. Unfortunately, most malangans which are left cannot be fully understood by anthropologists. There were stories connected to each malangan, and the stories were often a mixture of biographical and mythological. There is a type of “copyright” system to malangans as individuals purchase specific designs that cannot be reproduced again by other carvers, and the designs are intertwined with the biographical and mythological stories. So the works which remain, and which should have been burned, have lost their stories but retained their visual appeal to us.

Tatunua mask, northern New Ireland, 1901. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. (CC0)

Tatunua mask, northern New Ireland, 1901. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. (CC0)

The cultural meaning can often be understood better and it comes from the funerary ritual. Malangan is a ceremony for a dead person, usually of some social standing and influence, sponsored by another wealthy “big man”, as the ceremony often involves displays of abundance such as numerous slaughtered pigs. As harsh as it is to learn this, no malangan can be prepared for a “man nothing”.  The big goal of the malangan ceremony is to, basically, get rid of the deceased’s spirit and push it toward the land of the dead. Inherent in this ceremony seems to be the belief that any “big man’s” spirit is going to be trouble and some means has to be employed to kick it over to the other side.

So a big man would pay for a malangan design and then commission a carver to execute the work. He would work closely with the carver and oversee the work, often explaining how stories and meanings should be best displayed. This process could take several months. The malangans were ultimately displayed in shelters built especially for the ceremony. The more spectacular the malangans and ceremony, the more prestige redounded to the big man.

So a carver would work for months with a big man to produce one or more malangan figures, which would be viewed for only a few short hours before being destroyed through fire or left to decay. An integral part of the production of the malangan was the imparting of magical power to it through chanting after the construction process. Therefore, the malangan, expected to possess spirits, was often burned to prevent it from being used as a source of evil magic or sorcery.

The building where the malangans were to be displayed stood in the clan cemetery where protective spirits were believed to reside. A screen of leaves was removed around the display house after the ceremony involving masked dancers and a eulogy was delivered by the big man as he stood on a pile of dead pigs. After the malangans were viewed, they were ordinarily destroyed through fire to eliminate any evil spirits that may have slipped into the wood.

We clearly see a huge difference between the function that art served in pre-industrial societies as opposed to our own views of and uses of art. We would find it inconceivable to burn art shortly after completion as we believe it must be preserved and shown as widely as possible to convey meaning. The fact that some of these malangans still exist is due to our contemporary belief that beautiful works must be preserved. This is antithetical to the original purposes of this art, where destruction became necessary lest evil occur.

Malangan also helped to ensure an equitable land distribution throughout the change of generations. The ceremony of the malangan made sure that the death of a prominent villager did not lead to a redistribution of that villager’s land which he did not wish. The malangan allowed for a validation of the deceased wishes for land distribution to future generations. Of course, a superior position within a clan was often ensured or reinforced through one’s ability to plan and effect a spectacular malangan for a departed big man.

When anthropologists first discovered malangan they were perplexed. They knew that aspects of the ceremony were taboo to women because they represented life and fertility in opposition to the death being addressed. They knew that the ceremonies honored the dead. They were captivated by the spectacle, appeal and charm of the pieces and did what they could to preserve them. We now know that in preserving them they violated the wishes of the original creators and misunderstood the alternative concept of art that preceded ours, imposing their wishes over the wishes of the original artists of the malangan pieces.

Top image: Malangan carvings, now world-famous, are the wooden carvings which are created for use in malangan ceremonies. Traditionally these were burnt at the conclusion of the event; in modern times most are now retained.      Source: Rita Willaert/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Daniel Gauss


Billings, D. and Peterson, N. “Malanggan in New Ireland”. Oceania, v. 38, 1967/68.

Bodrogi, Tibor, “New Ireland Art in Cultural Context”. Assemblage of Spirits, ed., Louise Lincoln,    Minnesota Institute of the Arts, 1987  

Field Museum. 1991. Pacific Spirits. Field Museum Centennial Collection.

Lincoln, Louise, “Introduction” Assemblage of Spirits. Ed. Louise Lincoln, Minnesota Institute of Art 


Frequently Asked Questions

A Malangan is a type of elaborate wooden sculpture or mask that is used in the traditional cultural practices of the people of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.

A Malangan ceremony is a complex ritual event that celebrates the life and death of a community member, and involves the creation, display, and destruction of Malangan objects.

The purpose of a Malangan mask is to embody the spirit of a deceased ancestor or other supernatural being, and to serve as a powerful symbol of the community's connection to its spiritual and cultural heritage.

Daniel Gauss's picture


Daniel Gauss is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin (BA) and Columbia University (MA). He has written about art, film and religion for numerous platforms and is currently working as a teacher in Shenzhen, China. 

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