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Malangan

Malangan figure, 1882-83 C.E., 122 cm high, north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan figure (detail), 1882-83 C.E., 122 cm high, wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula), north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum

Malangan figure

This figure was made for malangan, a cycle of rituals of the people of the north coast of New Ireland, an island in Papua New Guinea. Malangan express many complex religious and philosophical ideas. They are principally concerned with honoring and dismissing the dead, but they also act as affirmation of the identity of clan groups, and negotiate the transmission of rights to land. ​Malangan sculptures were made to be used on a single
Malangan figure, 1882-83 C.E., 122 cm high, wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula), north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan figure, 1882-83 C.E., 122 cm high, wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula), north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
occasion and then destroyed. They are symbolic of many important subjects, including identity, kinship, gender, death, and the spirit world. ​They often include representations of fish and birds of identifiable species, alluding both to specific myths and the animal's natural characteristics. For example, at the base of this figure is depicted a rock cod, a species which as it grows older changes gender from male to female. The rock cod features in an important myth of the founding of the first social group, or clan, in this area; thus the figure also alludes to the identity of that clan group.
This figure was collected by Hugh Hastings Romilly, Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific while he was on a tour of New Ireland in 1882-83. It was one a group of carvings made to be displayed at a particular malangan ritual. It is made of wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula). They were originally standing in a carved canoe, which unfortunately Romilly did not collect. The whole group was presented to the British Museum by the Duke of Bedford in 1884, after Romilly had sent it to him.
Malangan figures, 1882-83 C.E., wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula), north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan figures, 1882-83 C.E., wood, vegetable fiber, pigment and shell (turbo petholatus opercula), north coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum

Malangan mask

Malangan mask (detail), before 1884 C.E., wood, pigment, vegetable fibre, operculum., New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © The Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan mask (detail), before 1884 C.E., wood, pigment, vegetable fiber, operculum., New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan masks are commonly used at funeral rites, which both bid farewell to the dead and celebrate the vibrancy of the living. The masks can represent a number of things: dead 
Malangan mask, before 1884 C.E., wood, pigment, vegetable fiber, operculum., New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © The Trustees of the British Museum
Malangan mask, before 1884 C.E., wood, pigment, vegetable fiber, operculum., New Ireland, Papua New Guinea © Trustees of the British Museum
ancestors, ges (the spiritual double of an individual), or the various bush spirits associated with the area. 
The ownership of Malangan objects is similar to the modern notion of copyright; when a piece is bought, the seller surrenders the right to use that particular Malangan style, the form in which it is made, and even the accompanying rites. This stimulates production, as more elaborate variations are made to replace the ones that have been sold.
Malangan ceremonies became extremely expensive affairs, taking into account the costs of the accompanying feasting. As a result, the funeral rites could take place months after a person had died. In some circumstances the ceremony would have been held for several people simultaneously.

Suggested readings:
L. Lincoln, An Assemblage of Spirits: Idea and Image in New Ireland (George Braziller, New York, in association with The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1987).
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
    In the first paragraph, it says that the Malangan figures were made to be used on a single occasion and then destroyed. If the destruction was part of the Malangan ceremonies, then would its being "collected" rather than destroyed have been a problem to the people at the Malangan?

    Did Mr Romily have permission to take the figures or did he sneak them away? I've heard of artifact collectors secretly violating the taboos of native peoples in order to acquire ritual objects.
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jacob Smith
    Who wrote this article? It is so interesting, I would like the persons hard work to be credited
    (6 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user argylebamboozle
    These look very similar to the masks and artwork of the Pacific Northwest tribes like the Coast Salish people and the Haida. Is there any relation?
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Alexis Riley
    Is the mask made for anyone willing to pay for it, or was there a specific group or caste of people that the masks were used for?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user El  Potter
    So, were the masks ever meant to be worn or used by a human, or was their function to house a spirit of the recently deceased person?
    (2 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Vassiliana Mavriki
    Does the symmetry in the malangan mask imply evolved geometry knowledge in the area before it was discovered by west civilizations?
    (1 vote)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
      The fact that the people of Papua New Guinea had an exceptional knowledge and skills of geometry is obvious, and symmetry is just one aspect that proves it. The masks show that the people were excellent carvers, especially adept in carving intricate details and using negative spaces, regardless of when their area was discovered by westerners.
      (1 vote)
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user MalaksGummyBear
    where is malangan located?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Harry K
    On the malangans are they animals?
    (1 vote)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    What language is the term "ges" from? In the article, it is defined as the spiritual double of an individual. Can anyone tell me more about this notion of ges? I found a reference to "ges" at:
    http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/mask-kepong-or-ges-4716
    but it refers to a mask, called a kepong or ges, instead of a spiritual double of an individual.
    (1 vote)
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