Copyright and Mourning: Funerary Art of New Ireland

The island of New Ireland, part of the contemporary nation of Papua New Guinea, is known for its remarkable and varied funerary art forms. The most famous of these is called Malangan, which is practiced by the peoples of northern New Ireland. These ceremonies free the living from obligations to the deceased and allow the spirit of the deceased to move on to the next life. The term Malangan refers both to the ceremony, performances, and feasts that are held to honor the deceased and the art objects that are created for them.

After a person’s death their matrilineal family line is responsible for sponsoring the Malangan celebrations, though other family members and friends can also contribute and honor the dead. These celebrations include both people from within the community and visitors and friends who have traveled to take part. As these celebrations include feasts, performances, and the ceremonial exchange of goods, they are often spread out over months and years. Given the great expense of such a celebration, it is not unusual for the Malangan to take place months to years after the death of an individual or for one celebration to be used to honor several people. Both receiving a Malangan celebration in one’s honor and sponsoring a celebration for another confers status within the community.

Malangan designs, motifs, and forms are often referred to as having “copyrights.” While this does not line up perfectly with the Western use of the term, it is a relatively good way to understand the rules of use connected with them. Only people who have the “rights” to them can use the designs, motifs, and forms, and these rights are owned by specific families as well as by people who have reached certain important stages in life (such as marriage or the birth of a child).

The peoples of southern New Ireland used chalk figures as a part of their memorial rituals. These figures, made by specialist artists in the center of the island, were created for the deceased’s spirit to enter and as a means of guiding that spirit to the afterlife. Once this purpose had been fulfilled the figure itself was destroyed.

There are two other major funerary art forms from New Ireland, which unlike Malangan are no longer practiced. In central New Ireland the Mandak peoples created memorial figures to embody the spirit of the deceased. These figures would commemorate the life of an individual man and were typically displayed as part of a ceremony for skull burial at the end of a yearlong funeral ritual for an important person.

 

Unknown Artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Carving in the Form of a Figure. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 81.17

After the death of a loved one the family of the deceased commissions a sculptor or sculptors to create, over several months, elaborate memorial carvings known as Malangan. In some instances the head of a family may contribute a form or motif to a friend or community leader from another family.

Figures, such as this one, while varying greatly, typically represent an ancestor or mythical entity connected to the single life-giving force. The exact story or explanation of imagery used in a Malangan carving is only understood by the owner of the rights to that Malangan. Even other members of the community would not fully understand a Malangan they did not have the rights to use.

It is believed that during the public display of the figure the ancestor or mythical figure depicted dwells within the form. The final step in the creation of a Malangan figure is the placing of the eyes, which enliven the carving. Once the ceremony is over the figures are destroyed or sold to people outside of the community.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Mask, Tatanua. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 63.15

In addition to the carvings utilized as part of the Malangan rituals, dances performed for the public were also extremely important. This mask was worn and danced by men and was created to convey manly beauty. The high crest represents a hairstyle worn by young men of the community during mourning. Additionally, the flaring nostrils and open mouth are common features for the form.

While the hairstyle shown is one worn by young men, the subject the mask depicts is not clearly agreed upon. Early reports suggest that the masks are representations of the dead, ancestors who have returned in order to participate in the Malangan. Many New Irelanders today reject this idea and instead believe the masks to be the representations of living people. It is unclear if this early report was mistaken or if people’s interpretation of the masks have changed over time.

These masks, which typically appear at the end of the Malangan rituals, are danced in pairs or groups. These dance performances are often given and paid for by a friend or by family members of the deceased. Unlike the carvings associated with Malangan that are created uniquely for the individual dance, masks are often rented from the sculptor who created them and can be reused in the future.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Southern area, Papua New Guinea. Figure, kulap. Chalk, pigment. Eskenazi Museum of Art 62.67

After the conversion of the peoples of New Ireland to Christianity the practice of chalk figures came to a quick end. The last figures to be made are thought to have been created around 1910.

Before the early twentieth century when a man or woman from a prosperous family passed away a male relative would travel to obtain a chalk figure. These figures were sometimes commissioned, but sometimes pre-made figures were purchased, always with the sex of the figure matching the sex of the deceased.

Once the male relative returned home the figure would be presented to the local leader who was in charge of such images and placed with other figures in a memorial shrine. This shrine, located within an enclosure, was only to be viewed by men, though women often gathered outside to mourn the deceased.

 

Unknown Mandak artist. New Ireland, Central area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Figure. Wood, pigment, shell, sea snail operculum, fiber. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 91.498

Visually there are number of connections to the Malangan carvings of northern New Ireland, such as the predominant use of black, white, and red pigments; however, unlike the Malangan memorial carvings, this one would be kept over many years. In fact, whenever a new figure was carved all of the other figures would be brought out and repainted for the occasion.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this type of figure is the presence of both male and female genitalia. It is thought that this may be a representation of the importance of both men and women within the community and as part of the reproductive cycle. However, very little firm evidence is known as these figures have not been created or used in several generations. Also, there are only a few known reports that describe their ceremonial context and these are based on very limited information. What is clear is that these figures were created to represent those who were powerful and important within their community.

Emma Kessler
Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

If you would like to learn more about South Pacific and Oceanic Art visit the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Highlights from the Collection website.

 

Ronald Markman: Remembering the Mastermind of Mukfa

Study for Cityscape II, 1994. Black ink and colored pencil on paper. Echo Press Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 95.72.2

 

On May 30, artist and former professor at Indiana University, Ronald Markman, passed away. Below Nan Brewer, Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art reflects on Markman’s career.

In 1962 on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy, Markman saw old maps of Rome by printmakers like Piranesi and was inspired to create his own mythical metropolis. Dubbed Mukfa, which he thought sounded both slightly obscene and sort of lyrical, it became the subject of an on-going series. As Markman later recalled, “Creating a country of my very own, complete with its own heroes, villains, mermaids, newspapers, airlines, and university offered me the freedom I had always sought from art.”

The works’ bright colors and cartoonish style recall the scenic designs of Broadway musicals, comic art, and the Marx Brothers’ movies—all experiences associated with Markman’s childhood in the Bronx. Although he started out with the dream of becoming a cartoonist, Markman continued his studies at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the Art Students’ League on the advice of Saul Steinberg who told him to learn to draw. A stint in the army and subsequent GI bill enabled Markman to attend the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied under master colorist Josef Albers and earned a BFA and an MFA. His understanding of color theory garnered Markman a job as a color consultant for Hallmark Cards Co. where he worked for a year after college and would become a central feature of his own creative work.

Turning to painting as his primary medium, Markman also began to teach. After short stints at the University of Florida and the Art Institute of Chicago, he joined the painting faculty at Indiana University in 1964, where he taught until his retirement in 1995. After his retirement and the death of his wife, Barbara, Markman moved to Maryland, in order to be near his only daughter, Ericka. He continued to make art and exhibit his work.

In addition to his many paintings, prints, and drawings, Markman created a series of five wall murals for Riley Hospital in Indianapolis (1986) and a short animated film, Ever Since the Bad Thing Happened (1994). His work is found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Johnson Museum of Art, and many other institutions.

The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection includes twenty-two works by this artist. Here is a small sampling.

Cityscape, 1980. Color lithograph with collage on paper. Echo Press Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 86.59.1

 

Despite an innate playfulness and naïve, childlike style, there is often a subtle political commentary in Markman’s images. In Cityscape, a print collage created at Bloomington’s Echo Press, a plane crashing into a city, while pursued by the cops, along with the congested skyscrapers, clocks, “eyeball” lamp, and ant-like vehicles, exhort a police state and the inhumanity of totalitarianism. However, speaking about his depictions of evil in the world, Markman said, “I don’t see myself as a mean artist, but I do like to poke fun.”

Garden, 1965. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase with funds from the Hope Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art 65.65.1

 

The Eskenazi Museum of Art acquired its first work by the young faculty member a year after he came to IU. Markman’s iconic three-breasted women in this painting suggest the “limits of the nonsensical, the absurd and the subversive” found in his art.

Money, 1962. Etching on paper. Gift of the artist, Eskenazi Museum of Art 68.94.2

 

This print shows the extent to which Markman took his imperial fantasy. The currency represents both sides of an 8 DRAS bill from the Republic of Mukfa.

Still Life with Flowers, 1980. Mixed media assemblage: acrylic paint, wood, plastic, and wicker. Gift of Professor Emeritus Gene Shreve, Eskenazi Museum of Art 2013.165

 

In his later work, Markman began to push the limits of the traditional four-sided canvas by creating painted sculptural reliefs as still life tableaus or hung “rugs.”

For more on Ronald Markman read his recent obituary in the New York Times, or visit Markman’s website.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website