ST. LOUIS.- The St. Louis Art Museum presents the exhibit New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific through January 7, 2007. Just ahead you will see fascinating and compelling works of art from New Ireland, an island group in the southwest Pacific. These captivating pieces include beautifully made masks and stunning sculpture created in the isolation of dramatic natural surroundings. You will also see three short videos that help place these mysterious works of art in context. Saint Louis Art Museum Curator Michael Gunn, who has traveled extensively in New Ireland, shares his knowledge of the island's geography and people and discusses a traditionally ceremony called malagan.
New Ireland: Art of the South Pacific opens at the Saint Louis Art Museum and will travel to international audiences in Paris and Berlin. Works of art in this exhibition, which were used by people living in New Ireland in the late 19th century, represent most of the island's 12-known, independently created art traditions. These captivating pieces, which include beautifully made masks and stunning sculpture, come from the better known northern region as well as from the comparatively unknown south. New Ireland is an island group located in the southwest Pacific, just south of the equator, 1000 miles northeast of Australia. People living in New Ireland today identify 22 distinct regions within the island group.
The main island is 250 miles long and averages 10 miles wide. It is divided by a chain of mountains into three areas: north, central, and south. The land is very fertile because of soils derived from a mixture of volcanic and raised coral limestone substrate.
People have been living in New Ireland for at least 33,000 years. The first inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived mainly on what they found in the abundant reefs and forests. Around 3500 years ago a new group of people came to New Ireland from the west, probably from New Britain and before that from New Guinea. They brought with them knowledge of pottery making, long distance navigation and sailing, and a more agriculturally based settlement pattern.
Today, the population in the entire New Ireland province is about 125,000 inhabitants. Around 20 languages are spoken, but the number of dialects and subdialects is estimated to be as high as 45. The provincial capital is Kavieng, on the northern tip of the main island, but most of the inhabitants live in villages.
Northern New Ireland is known for traditional ceremonies and feasts called malagan, which are held to honor people who have died. Preparation for a malagan typically begins shortly after a funeral though the ceremony may not take place for several years. Significant planning is required because leaders organize performances, prepare large feasts, and create elaborate masks, boards, and sculptures. These works of art are also referred to as malagan.
Malagan objects are used or shown in vertical display stages during part of the malagan ceremony. Masks are primarily used to remove taboos, and figural sculptures represent the life force of a clan. At the height of the ritual, ownership of the rights to create malagan objects passes to the next generation.