Malagan head
Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Tabar Islands

Magic rituals were performed and masks sculpted to prepare for a malagan funerary ceremony. These rare masks are part of the marada tradition, a set of objects, dances and songs belonging to a clan and associated with the rain-making rituals.

 

Malagan head

  • Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, Tabar Islands
  • 20th century

  • Wood with coarse patina, natural pigments

  • H 44cm; W 35cm; D 35cm

 
 

Origin

  • Pierre Langlois (1927–2015), Paris, collected in situ in 1970

  • Former collection of Baudouin de Grunne (1917–2011), Wezembeek-Oppem (Belgium)

  • Former collection of Bill and Ann Ziff, New York

  • Sotheby’s, New York, African, Oceanic & Pre-columbian art, 15 May 2015, lot no. 88

  • Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris

  • musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.28), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

The work’s original context

This monumental head is extremely rare: only some 15 are conserved in public and private collections. With its fearsome look, it would have been used in magic rituals calling for rain, practised in the Tabar Islands and in northern New Ireland. It illustrates the visual power that characterises the many artistic traditions of this region of the world, extolled at the start of the 20th century by expressionist artists in Germany, then by the surrealists in France. Most works in northern New Ireland and the Tabar Islands are associated with highly complex funerary ceremonies called malagan. The Tabar Islands are made up of three islands – Big Tabar, Tatau and Simberi – in the south west of the Pacific Ocean in Papua New Guinea, located off the north coast of New Ireland. More broadly, they form part of the Bismarck Archipelago1, which includes New Ireland  (to which the Tabar Islands belong administratively), New Britain, the Admiralty Islands and a group of small islands known as the Western Islands2

 

 ______
 

A German colony from 1884 to 1914 (which explains why German collections are especially rich in art from New Ireland), the Bismarck Archipelago, which takes its name from the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, was called Neupommern (or New Pomerania) at this time.
See Conru, 2013.

Malagan traditions

Art from New Ireland and the Tabar Islands is especially known today for an ensemble of ritual objects grouped under the generic term malagan or malanggan. According to Michael Gunn, these cultural and artistic traditions come from the Tabar Islands, where they have been best conserved, lasting up to the modern day, unlike in many other linguistic regions of northern New Ireland where they have gradually disappeared.

These malagan artefacts, characterised by a surprising profusion of iconography and an infinitely rich composition, were originally used in eponymous funerary ceremonies honouring the memory of the deceased. These complex, spectacular commemorative ceremonies were very costly, both in food and material needed for the ritual sequences, which required much preparation, itself highly codified and regulated. Malagan works of art, as well as their structure and production, were the subject of rights and “were produced from intellectual owned by clans and clan leaders.”3 In the same way, the creation of malagan effigies and ritual objects by professional sculptors was determined through detailed indications, each stage of which was the subject of offerings and a precise duration of execution.

As Susanne Küchler points out, malagan funerary rituals “culminates in the production, revelation and 'death' of effigies. When installed in a structure that is specifically erected for its display, the effigy is thought to be alive, having been gradually animated during the process of its production. […] is attended as though the dummy were the living person himself – being animated and subsequently allowed to die, thus allowing the deceased person’s soul to achieve symbolic immortality. […] amplifies the doubleness of death [ …] one tying down the memory of the deceased that can be independently verified […] and the other replacing the texture of this memory with an image which takes over the work of remembering. The merging of the soul with the carved image of malagan designates this final act […] in which the soul of the dead is refigured as immortal in ways that grant legitimate powers to those who know how to effect this [...].”4 As surprising as it may seem, these highly elaborate objects were only used once. Having exhausted their effectiveness in the ritual context for which they were made, they were then destroyed, abandoned or sold once the ceremonies were over. With the exception of some objects, which were preciously conserved, maintained and passed down from generation to generation to be reused in specific rituals. This was the case for this type of head.

 

______
 
Gunn and Peltier, 2007, p. 14.
Susanne Küchler in Gunn and Peltier, 2007, p. 194.
Malagan figures, New Ireland, 1929. © Gerhard Peekel / © D.R.
Malagan figures, New Ireland, 1929. © Gerhard Peekel / © D.R.

Calling for rain

Many malagan cultural sub-traditions exist in New Ireland and the Tabar Islands. As Philippe Peltier explains, “what is meant […] by tradition is the set of objects, dances and chants that belong to a clan and that are used in a malagan ceremony.”5 According to Michael Gunn, this head is part of the malagan sub-tradition called marada, in the Tabar Islands. This marada tradition was a calling for rain, on which the viability of gardens depended and, in turn, the large amount of food required for malagan ceremonies.

 

Some of these heads – wrongly called ‘masks’ (because of their size, they could not be worn) – were used in these rain-making rituals carried out by specialist magicians whose responsibility was passed down solely from father to son. Rare accounts have reached us regarding use of these heads, which are known as kovabat6 or kowabe7, literally meaning ‘rain-head’. Topping plant-fibre figures, they were displayed in special enclosures that the uninitiated were not allowed to enter. During the Deutsche Marine Exhibition, the ethnologist Augustin Krämer observed these marada heads in their enclosures and immortalised his observation in a photograph taken in 1908 in the field. In addition to marada malagan heads, other considerable ritual material was required in rain-making ceremonies. This included large shell stoups containing the skulls of the clan’s former rain-making magicians, immersed in water. 

 

______
 
5 Peltier in Joubert, 2016, p. 162.
6 Gunn and Peltier, 2007, p. 248.
7 Peltier in Joubert, 2016, p. 162.
Marada malagan statue photographed by Captain Karl Eduard Macco. © Karl Joseph Eduard Macco © D.R.

Marada malagan statue photographed by Captain Karl Eduard Macco. © Karl Joseph Eduard Macco © D.R.

Marada malagan statue in its enclosure, 1908–1909. © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK 
Marada malagan statue in its enclosure, 1908–1909. © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK 
Skulls placed in stoups in a rainmakers enclosure. By Elisabeth Krämer-Bannow in 1908–1909.​​​​​​​ © D.R
Skulls placed in stoups in a rainmakers enclosure. By Elisabeth Krämer-Bannow in 1908–1909. © D.R

Three categories identified

These monumental heads were originally painted black. They all display the same formal characteristics such as the strip running over the top of the head, down the forehead to the bridge of the nose, and the overhanging eyebrow arches crafted like supraorbital rolls of flesh.

Today, around 15 heads are conserved and specialists have distinguished three types of styles8 among them: those with a curved jaw like in this model, those with a square nasal ornament and those with a pig head at their base.

______

 
8 Gunn and Peltier, 2007, p. 248.

History of the work and its background

This rare work was collected in the Tabar Islands by Pierre Langlois (1927–2015) in 1970. Shortly afterwards, it was acquired by the great Belgian collector Baudouin de Grunne (1917–2011), then by New York collectors Bill and Ann Ziff, before joining the collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière in 2015.

In 1970, Pierre Langlois brought back around thirty objects from two caves on Big Tabar, between the villages of Metelik and Baness. This collection led to the first exhibition dedicated to the Tabar Islands, displayed in the Jacques Kercharche gallery in Paris in 1971.

Pierre Langlois (1927–2015) was a discreet, even secretive, man and one of the first art dealers who went looking for objects directly in the field. He started out as a sales representative in spirits in Lille before discovering, through his bookseller friend Marcel Evrard, the tome Dieu d’eau by ethnologist Marcel Griaule, who headed the Dakar-Djibouti mission from 1931 to 1933. This book, published in 1948, recounts Marcel Griaule’s first stay among the Dogon people in Mali. Pierre Langlois was fascinated by the account, and in the early the 1950s, decided to set out on his first trip to Africa, to the Bandiagara cliffs in the Dogon region. After a year of travelling around the region, he brought back numerous objects to France that led to the first monographic exhibition on Dogon art, displayed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, then in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille in 1954. Following the exhibition’s unexpected success, Pierre Langlois decided to devote his life to non-European art. He opened a gallery in Paris in the 1960s and undertook many missions to Africa, Oceania and South America, where he collected hitherto unknown objects in the most remote places.

A lover of modern sculptures and paintings, Count Baudouin de Grunne (1917–2011) discovered non-European art in 1956 in Courtrai at an exhibition displaying a selection of works from Mexico and Oceania, organised by an art dealer friend and admirer of primitive art. Enchanted by what he discovered, he acquired several objects. Several months later, on the advice of Belgian artists Roel d’Haese and Octave Landuyt, he visited an exhibition on Oceanian art in Brussels, following which he acquired two large Sepik statues. The curiosity that these two events inspired quickly turned into a ‘growing passion’ that would never leave him: “I live intensely alongside these objects, I feel them strongly, like I believe all true collectors of primitive art do. I like having them around me, in my living room, in my bedroom, everywhere. I am not afraid of them, except when ill, when certain Paracas skulls make me reflect too closely on the fate that awaits us all and which we refuse despairingly. […] When I get up, I look at them. When I go to bed, I look at them. When I go in or out of my house, when I read or work in one of these rooms, I look at them with a pleasure that is ever new because their message is ever fresh and their presence ever intense. The items in my collection are not decorative ornaments. I do not make them into museum pieces, but friends, almost partners, silent yet greatly meaningful.”9 Recognising that he felt “an attraction to that which is less common, less classic and classified, for that which is powerful and which constitutes new expressions and forms of primitive art”10, Baudouin de Grunne put together one of the world’s largest collections of non-European art with a rigorous, selective outlook. For him, “the only thing that counts is the formal beauty of the object and the feeling that emerges from within: something profoundly true, essential, vital.”11 He was also the first person to amass the largest collection of African terracotta artworks, which led to far-reaching research in understanding Africa’s old cultures, especially the works of the Inner Niger and Nigeria Delta.

 

William Bernard Ziff Jr. (1930–2006) was a renowned New York publisher. He began collecting non-European art in 1989, a passion he shared with his wife Ann Tamsen Ziff, the founder-designer behind Tamsen Z jewellery. During some 20 years, they amassed an eclectic collection of remarkable quality, mixing modern, Amerindian, Inuit, Oceanian, African and Asian art as they discovered new marvels.

 

______
 
9 Briat, 1974, p. 18.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
Catalogue cover for the Tabar Islands exhibition in the Jacques Kerchache gallery in 1971. © D.R

Catalogue cover for the Tabar Islands exhibition in the Jacques Kerchache gallery in 1971. © D.R

Ann Ziff, with the works in the collection amassed with her husband. © Alice Gao

Ann Ziff, with the works in the collection amassed with her husband. © Alice Gao

Selected bibliography & cartography

Maps

Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.

 

Publications

BOUNOURE Vincent, Visions d’Océanie, Paris, Éditions Dapper, 1992.

BRIAT René, « Sortilèges de l’art primitif. Une grande collection belge » in Plaisir de France, n° 416, February 1974.

CONRU Kevin (Dir.), L’Art de l’Archipel Bismarck, Milan, 5 Continents, 2013.

CONRU Kevin, Anonymous Collectors, Brussels, Vasco & Co, 2007.

DERLON Brigitte, De mémoire et d’oubli : anthropologie des objets malanggan de Nouvelle-Irlande, Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme de Paris CNRS, 1997.

DORISINGFANGSMETS A. et CLAERHOUT G., Masques du Monde, Brussels, Société Générale de Banque, 1974.

GUNN Michael, Arts rituels d'Océanie dans les collections du musée Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva; Milan, Skira, musée Barbier-Mueller, 1997.

Michael, and Peltier, Philippe (dir.), New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific, St. Louis Art Museum, Musée du Quai Branly Paris, 2006.

KIRK Malcolm, Les Papous. Peintures corporelles, parures et masques, Paris, Chêne, 1981.

KIRK Malcolm, Man as Art : New Guinea, San Francisco, Chronicle Book.

LELOUP Hélène, « Hommage : Pierre Langlois » in Tribal Art Magazine, Summer 2015, n° 76, p. 154.

JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 161-163.

KERCHACHE Jacques, Iles Tabar, Paris, Galerie Jacques Kerchache, 1971.

KRÄMER Augustin, Die Málanggane von Tombara, Munich, Verlag, 1925.

KRÄMER-BANNOW Elisabeth, Among Art-Loving Cannibals of the South Seas : Travels in New Ireland 1908-1909, including Scientific Annotations by Augustin Krämer translated by Waltraud Schmidt, Crawford Press, 2007.

 

Auction catalogues

Sotheby’s New York, African, Oceanic & Pre-columbian art, 15 may 2015, lot n° 88.

Sotheby’s Paris, Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, 13 june 2018, lot n° 52.

Drouot Montaigne, Paris, Collection Baudouin de Grunne : le regard d'un collectionneur sur les années 50, 18 november1994.

Sotheby’s New York, The Baudouin de Grunne Collection of African Art, 19 may 2000.