Think of someone you used to know. Someone not here anymore. What do you see? A mask-like figure with animal features and a mohawk? Probably not.
But if you were from the province of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, it might not be that far off.
A malangan figure, such as the one shown in the picture above, is a representation of someone who died. It shapes the last image of the deceased, as seen by the bereaved. Containing a mixture of symbols and motives, including animal traits, malangan figures come in many different forms and shapes. The woodcarver will form the malangan in accordance to descriptions from the living family, but he will also receive more specific instructions from the family forefathers in his dreams.
Beautiful and impressive as they may be, malangan figures were originally not meant to be on display. After a ceremony usually featuring exchange of pigs and money made from sea shells, the masks were to be destroyed – burned or left in a cave to rot, because of the influence of the forefathers embedded in the symbols and motives on the figure. By destroying the malangan, the bodily and social ties were cut, thus allowing the deceased to be reborn as a forefather.
So what is this one doing in a glass case at a Danish museum no less than 13.000 km away from home?
The simple answer might be commercialism, given that today many malangan figures are produced directly for sale. The tradition of carving malanga figures has fascinated westerners since the early colonial times, so making a bit of money from this fascination – why not?
Then is this just another example of western tourists tampering with local traditions? Maybe. But the idea of “the natives” as people encapsulated in space and time is in many ways a long gone myth belonging to the early 20th century. Traditions, such as the carving of malangan figures, are constantly being reviewed and renewed in lights of the ever changing society to which they belong. Today the figures represent not only the dead, but act as equivocal symbols for the whole province, where malangan decorations of the pillars in the local airport and the arranging of a new cycling race called “Tour de Malangan” are but a few examples of how the original tradition is transforming and shaping a new collective identity.
The Malangan figure is currently at display in the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead” at Moesgaard Museum.
// Emma Louise Pedersen
“De, som dør to gange – Malangan som ting og som repræsentation” by Steffen Dalsgaard in De dødes liv edited by Ole Høiris, Ton Otto, Ane Bonde Rolsted, Aarhus Universitetsforlag, Moesgaard Museum, 2014
Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.
Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck, lbmfotografi.wix.com