New Ireland: Where Are the Women?

The exhibit “World of Shadows,” which was shown in St. Louis as well as in Berlin, is an exquisitely curated show, with amazing, rarely seen objects related for the most part to the malagan ritual. The word malagan designates not only the works of art associated with the ritual, but the whole ritual complex as well. The whole process can last over a period of months and includes the actual creation of the artworks. In fact, each stage of the work is marked by celebration and feasting.

The malagan mask carvings are creations which are transmitted to the artists in dreams. The masks are related to the dead persons but are not actual portraits. They become living beings when the souls of the dead enter them, and serve as interim bodies for the souls before they move onwards to the “other side.” In the final ceremony, accompanied by the sacrificing of pigs, and feasting, dance, and music, the high point is reached with the uncovering of the malagans, (they can be up to 4 meters high!) which up to this point have been under a taboo. The souls of the dead have now entered the carvings, and will be free to move on, just as those who are left behind will be freed of the dead spirits here on earth. At this point there will be no more use for the malagans, which are either destroyed or sold to tourists. Unfortunately, according to the New Ireland tourism website, in the last 25 years the number of recognized malagan carvers has reduced from 15 to just 2.

The exhibit contains over 150 sculptures and objects. As I wandered through section after section, I became increasingly disconcerted by the absence of female figures. I finally came upon one carving of a pregnant woman, but there was little commentary on this object. Over half-way through the exhibit, I came to two large (ca. 6 ft. diameter) and imposing woven disc-shaped “wall-hangings,” with a large hole in the center of each, called vavaras. According to the commentary, these discs can be traced back to the work of a woman. The story goes that a woman had an illegitimate son (who did not possess any malagan rights) for whom she made the first vavara disc after dreaming of a spider in its web. Though the men accepted (inexplicably, it seems to me!) the disc as a malagan, they forbade all women any contact with these objects forever after!

The commentary goes on to explain that the vavaras are considered particularly powerful and dangerous, for which reason they are burned as soon as possible after the ceremony is over (there are only 3 exemplars known to exist in the world, and 2 of them were hanging here in the museum). The burning is done either at night or in the morning when the wind has died down and the air is still cool, so that the smoke will blow upwards, as it would endanger anyone who inhales it. Women’s power is not to be underestimated!

Moving onward I arrive at the section titled “The Sphere of Women.” Realizing that a curator can only show that which exists, I gratefully turn to two small walls where a series of eight rather large panels hang – “from a woman’s initiation house.” It seems that well into colonial times it was the custom to initiate girls, “above all the daughters of high-ranking men,” in conjunction with their first menstruation. The graphic depictions of the female anatomy, from pre-menstruation through birth were meant for hanging in the small conical huts in which the girls were secluded for sometimes months upon their first menstruation. There, they were supposedly to learn the necessary skills for their imminent marriage upon  release, at which point they should emerge well-nourished and with their skin a light color of “red.” The panels are certainly an interesting and also sad remnant of a time long past, a time hinted at by the matrilineal succession still practiced by the islanders.

One pleasant surprise a little further on was a female malagan figure. With one hand she touches her breast, with the other her clitoris, which due to its size I at first mistook for a penis. According to the commentary, in earlier times women danced around the bed of a woman in childbirth, masturbating to ward off evil influences. It seems that imitations of the sexual act in dance “refer to the different, sometimes competitive social roles of men and women.” Why this should be so would be interesting to pursue. Unfortunately, it is but a small hint with no further clues, and I leave the exhibit wondering: What role did women play in malagan? Did they have their own dances and songs? Why are there so few figures of women remaining or were they never made in the first place? Why are there so few women present in the films shown at the exhibit, did they not take part in the ritual? Why is one whole half of the population of New Ireland for all practical purposes just left out? I feel somewhat helpless, not knowing where to turn for an answer or if there even is one. So much has been lost and so much is just not told.

And yet a story can be surmised, a story which is not at all unique. One need only glance at the relatively recent history of “New Ireland,” viewed in front of the backdrop of  30-35,000 years of human activity on the island. Sporadic contact with Europeans landing in the course of their voyages began as far back as 1521, but not until the mid-19th c. did European influence begin to grow, as missionaries, alcohol, tobacco, and “European vices” along with diseases became increasingly prevalent. It was in this period that the infamous “blackbirding” took place, the transporting of slaves, “laborers as a commodity,” from New Ireland for work in Samoa, Fiji, and Queensland. The half century up to 1900 was a bloody one, a time in which the islanders gained the reputation of cannibals, as they desperately feuded against the European invasion. When in 1900 the so-called ‘Pax Germanica’ arrived on the scene in the form of Franz Boluminski, his wife, and 8 policemen, the islanders had a century of degradation and defilement of their culture behind them. From 1904 onwards German settlers arrived, followed by the Chinese. In 1905, Methodist missionaries arrived in Kavieng, the Catholics followed a few years later, and it seems that Christianity was at that point rapidly accepted. The status as a German colony lasted until WWI, at which point Australia took over with tragic implications for the inhabitants, who resultingly became involved in WWII. Kavieng and the surrounding plantations were devastated after almost constant bombing in 1944-45 and the local people suffered terribly. Independence finally came to New Ireland as part of Papua New Guinea in 1975.

The transformation from an intact culture to a culture whose people have suffered humiliation and loss of tradition brings with it further loss within the culture itself as its members struggle to regain lost power, legitimacy, and self-worth. Compensating for suffering and outer rejection, the members of an oppressed group search for an Other, just as they themselves have been given the role of Other within the greater scheme of things. Someone must bear the weight of Other in a situation where the pain of degradation is born by the whole culture in daily experience. Women, generally marginalized anyway in the dominant cultures, are an easy target for such projections. I do not know what the culture of “New Ireland” once looked like. Surely, early European visitors have left us some accounts of their observations. There seems to be little concrete evidence in the form of artworks due to the custom of carving out of wood, due to the custom of destroying the images when they are no longer of use,  and due to the tropical climate. The cultural memory is frail and weak, literally dying out.  None of the surviving objects shown in this exhibit are from earlier than the 19th c. I like to think that it is not just circumstance that the oldest figure shown, which is also considered the oldest figure known in museum collections, is a female one. How old she is, is not specified. She is a malagan, standing with the typically intense stare, with wide prominent ears, holding the fish in front of her who is biting into her chin. If we listen carefully…… perhaps we can hear her speak.

Catherine Framm 2007

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