New Ireland Malangan Mask (PM030)

Description of item:






























































Wood, sago frond, rattan, earth pigments, snail shell (Turbo petholatus) opercula, lime, red ochre, charcoal; museum display quality; from the early 1900’s.


Height: 71 cm (28 inches)

Width: 41 cm (16 inches)

Depth: 45 cm (18 inches)


In northern New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, the funerary ceremonies and the associated masks, carved figures and other paraphernalia are called malangan (malagan or malanggan). There are several categories of masks used in the malangan and they are still currently being used. When a family decides it is time to begin the series of ceremonies to honour their dead relative, they commission a sculptor to carve examples of all the forms of malagan to which the deceased had acquired the rights during his or her lifetime. Malangan carvings were not representations of the dead individual, rather they incorporated an accumulation of images or motifs, as each clan owned the right to remember and make certain malangan types. These incorporations of animal and human figures referred to the clan’s founding myths and each person, by virtue of his unique kinship history within the clan, owned one or more specific malangan. The tatanua (tantanua) mask represents the spirits of the dead who are believed to attend the ceremonies and participate in the dances. Villagers clearly associated the different tatanua masks with specific deceased relatives and believed the mask wearers to be the reappearance of the spirit of that individual.


​In the past, the tatanua ceremony was an exclusive male ritual complex in the preparation of which contact with women was considered taboo (including food cooked by women), and took place in the men’s enclosure. During the ceremony, the carvings of the masks are painted then displayed on the front of the ceremonial house. Some masks are used when lifting certain taboos. After the ceremony however, the carvings are disposed of: broken up, burnt, discarded in the forest or sold to outsiders.


Craig, B. ‘Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes’, (2010: 91, 223).

​Newell, J. ‘Pacific Art in Detail’, (2011: 78).

​Kjellgren, E. ‘Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, (2007: 161).

​Bodrogi, T. ‘New Ireland Art in Cultural Context’, (1987: 21).


Arthur Palmer, Brisbane, Australia.



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