Monumental Head from a Marada Malagan, Tabar Island, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea
- New Ireland
Baudouin de Grunne, Brussels, acquired from the above
Collected by Bill and Ann Ziff, acquired from the above
Musée Dapper, Paris, Vision d'Océanie, October 22, 1992 – March 15, 1993
No author, "Sortiléges de l'art primitive", Plaisir de France, No. 416, February 1, 1974, p. 12, fig. 4
Malcolm Kirk, Man as Art: New Guinea, New York, 1981, p. 143
Malcolm Kirk, Neuguinea: Gesichter und Masken, Munich, 1981, p. 143
Malcolm Kirk, Les Papous. Peintures corporelles, parures et masques, Paris, 1986, p. 143
Vincent Bounoure, Vision d'Océanie, Paris, 1992, p. 164
Kevin Conru, Anonymous Collectors, Brussels, 2007, unpaginated, 1974, fol. 6 (recto)
By Vicky Barnecutt
New Ireland’s dynamic and distinctive art has been noted and celebrated by Europeans since the earliest encounters in the 17th century. In 1643, Gilsemans, a merchant travelling with Abel Tasman, recorded the canoe carvings and body adornment of three New Ireland men they saw at sea. Artefacts were collected from the early 19th century, and the people of New Ireland have long produced an extraordinary diversity of objects displaying great skill and creativity. Many of the cultural traditions underpinning art production are still vibrant today.
Art objects have been produced for ritual use throughout New Ireland, but carvings in the distinctive northern New Ireland art style are dominant in museums and private collections. Artefacts related to the malagan traditions of funerary and commemorate ceremonies in the north of the island are probably the best known of all New Ireland’s art. Central and southern New Ireland are also represented in collections, but to a lesser extent, and often by objects from art traditions that no longer exist, for example uli wooden statues and kulap stone figures. A number of prolific art traditions from the south, like the tumbuan and dukduk secret societies, are represented very rarely in museum collections.
Malagan ceremonies and traditions have long fascinated European visitors to New Ireland. Richard Parkinson, the amateur ethnologist and collector who lived in the region from 1884, described “ceremonies consisting of great feasts and dancing, which are performed using head masks”, with the production of the masks and carvings being undertaken in great secrecy (Parkinson, page 277). There is an enormous range of carvings, from masks to vertical posts, from horizontal poles to complex figures, to woven discs and carved canoes, that we now understand to be malagan-related objects.
This powerful wood sculpture of a head was collected on the island of Tabar, off the coast of northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, by the French field collector Pierre Langlois. Heads of this type are known as kovabat on Tabar (according to Edward Salle of Tatau village on Tabar, quoted in Gunn 2006: 248), which is derived from the words for head and rain. These heads were placed on wickerwork bodies and used in the Marada sub-tradition of malagan rituals. Malagan refers to both the cultural complex of funerary ritual and commemorative ceremonies that are found across northern New Ireland and Tabar, and their associated art traditions, which include sculptures, songs and dances. Most malagan sub-traditions have an oblique or elusive link between the object and its associated cultural tradition, but unusually, Marada has a direct link to the cultural traditions of rainmaking and draws references from this. The songs used in Marada malagan were also those used in rainmaking (Gunn 2014: 67). These heads, on their wickerwork bodies, may have been used in the rainmaking process as well as in a malagan ritual context.
Rainmaking was practiced by specially trained men throughout northern New Ireland in the early twentieth-century. Near the coast, rainmaking groves containing large clamshells filled with water and the skulls of former rainmakers were often found near the boundary fence of clan enclosures, which were forbidden to ordinary people. Special stones, as well as these kovabat heads, were also part of the paraphernalia associated with controlling the weather. Rainmaking skills were passed down from father to son, not following the idealised path of ritual knowledge from mother’s brother to sister’s son, which maintained such knowledge within the matrilineal clan.
The present kovabat head is of impressive size, and is in the form of a hollow helmet mask made from hardwood. It is highly stylised, with a curved jawline, a wide sagittal crest on the top of its head terminating in a "widow’s peak" on the forehead, and strongly carved ears with a loop at the lobe. Covered with a dense black patina, the head shows traces of white pigment around the teeth and cheeks, and red ochre at the front tip of the crest on the forehead, and marking out the lips, cheeks and ears. The sculptor's great skill in rendering the naturalistic anatomical forms of the cheekbones and brows within an abstract, geometrically stylized frame succeeds in creating an arresting image of supernatural power.
Most carvings made for malagan ceremonies were discarded after their display and use in the ritual context. The kovabat heads, along with the rub drums known as lunet or livika, were the only malagan-related objects that were kept and passed down from generation to generation; such pieces are known as heirloom objects. The heads were kept after their display, then washed and repainted when next needed. The clear signs of age evident in the corpus of extant kovabat heads suggest that some examples may have been used and re-used for many generations, like the best-known heirloom objects from New Ireland, the uli figures from the central region of the island. One uli figure has been shown by radiocarbon analysis to be hundreds of years old (Heinrich Schweizer, personal communication April 2015), and it is possible that Tabar kovabat heads may show comparable ages.
Kovabat heads are today extremely rare. There are around fifteen examples known from museum and private collections, of which only five are of the same type as the present head, which is characterized by the hollowed interior, finely modelled features and a curved jawline. These are:
1. An example in the Field Museum, Chicago, inv. no. “137685”, collected in 1908;
2. An example in the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland, inv. no. “173” (fig. 1);
3. An example in the Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland, New Zealand, inv. no. “32757”, acquired in 1952 (fig. 2);
4. An example in the private collection of Alain Schoffel, Paris (see Gunn 2006: pl. 108);
5. The present head.
Parkinson sold the Chicago example to the Field Museum in 1908; the collection dates for the others are later in the twentieth century, with Pierre Langlois responsible for collecting the Beyeler example and the present head. Ethnologist Augustin Krämer of the Deutsche Marine Expedition found several hardwood figures in an old rainmaking grove in northern New Ireland in 1908 and his book includes a photograph of a complete Marada figure (see fig. 3; Krämer 1925: Taf. 34).