Crawford House Publishing
Ritual Art At The Source Malagan on Tabar Island, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea

In Preparation

Some of the most fascinating masks and figurative sculpture created in the South Pacific have come from the Tabar Islands of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Ever since this art tradition was brought to Western attention by Abel Tasman in 1643, scholars have been seduced by the urge to interpret the symbolism apparent on many of these artworks. Explorers first, then whalers, traders, missionaries, and professional artefact collectors managed to bring to the West perhaps 5000 works of art from northern New Ireland, including Tabar, and many of the surviving artworks are to be found today in museums and private collections throughout the West.

Michael Gunn was one of those scholars who was seduced by the almost irresistible urge to interpret the symbolism found on malagan artworks from northern New Ireland. After several years of preliminary research in museums in the West, he traveled to the Tabar Islands, legendary source of the malagan ritual that resulted in the creation of many of these masks and painted wooden figures. He had anticipated that this work would be a form of ethnohistory – asking the old men about a tradition long dead, more an exercise in the effects of memory upon the re-creation of culture. But to his surprise Gunn found that malagan was still alive and actively practiced by the 2500 people living on Tabar in 1982.

This book results from a bargain that Gunn struck with some of the Big Men on Tabar – they would direct his research, and he would eventually publish it. His initial interest in symbolism soon dwindled when he was repeatedly told that ‘we could reinvent meanings for you, if you want, but its our reality that we want you to document’. ‘Our reality’ entailed visiting every village on Tabar, locating each of the owners of the art-producing malagan ritual, then asking him (or occasionally her) which part of the malagan ritual property he or she owned. This resulted in descriptions of more than 450 distinct works of malagan sculpture and masks, as well as providing the basis for an understanding of a structure of the malagan subtraditions on Tabar – the structure that contains all the ownership rights of malagan. For it became quite apparent that all aspects of malagan were controlled by copyright, and that no malagan object could be created outside the copyright system. But it was also made clear that non-malagan art objects (including masks) could be created and used outside but in close proximity to the malagan system.

In addition to providing a description and analysis of the malagan art-producing ritual traditions as practiced on Tabar in the late 20th century, this book also includes a number of photographs of malagan figures and masks, as well as other objects of material culture that were collected from the Tabar Islands during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

List of maps, illustrations and tables
1. Introduction
2. Malagan ritual behaviour: Death and burial sequence
3. Malagan ritual behaviour: Commemorative sequence
4. Social and cultural connections of malagan
5. Taxonomic structure and typology of malagan on Tabar
6. Conclusions
A. Malagan big-name subtraditions and components
B. Selected tap transcripts of oral traditions, recorded from Tabar, 1982, 1983-84

Michael Gunn became fascinated by the art of New Ireland when he worked as a volunteer the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1980. Later, as a curator at the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin, Gunn and his wife, Bee, documented malagan ritual on the Tabar Islands. From 1994 to 1999, while working as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he was able to examine thousands of pieces from New Ireland, which were collected in the 19th century and are now in museums in Europe. He is currently curator for Oceanic Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and has just returned from his third field-trip to New Ireland.


Michael Gunn






Numerous colour and black-and-white photographs, maps and diagrams


Portrait; hardcover; c. 350 pages


240 x 214 mm



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