Letting Go

Lesson Plan


Students will discuss what cultures value and how they honor what they value. They will learn about the importance of the artistic process in creating the Malagan Figures from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. They will create poems based on the class discussion.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

One 55 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the process used to create the Malagan Figures ;
  • explain what role the figures play in New Ireland culture and their ephemeral nature; and
  • write a poem that reflects the artistic process, themes, and images of the Malagan Figures .


1. Warm-up: Have students write a poem about a favorite possession. Instruct them to use any style of poetry they want but to be vivid, rich, and detailed in their descriptions. The reader should be able to see, feel, hear, smell, etc., various aspects of the person or object.

2. Have the students share their poems with a partner.

3. Project the image the Malagan Figures or distribute the color photocopies.

4. Ask the students to write down as many details as they can observe, including shapes, colors, and images, and for what purpose they think the objects were made. They may work in pairs. Compile a list of the observations on the board or flip chart.

5. Share information on the Malagan Figures , why and how they’re made, why the details are included, etc. Emphasize the fact that the objects are ultimately destroyed. (For more information, look at the “What Inspired It?” section of About the Art.)

6. Facilitate a discussion on why the people of New Ireland would destroy an object that our own culture places in a museum.

  • Would they destroy the object they wrote about?
  • How many of them have saved works of art, stories, or other things they’ve made in the past?
  • Would they destroy those?

7. Focus on the notion of the objects being a “trap” for the life force and how destroying them releases this life force. Ask the students if they have any questions on this belief.

8. Share that they are going to write another poem. This time they are to think about the poem as a Malagan Figure for a person they love. The “core” of the poem should consist of vivid images “carved” and “painted” with delicate figures that reflect their loved one. The outer-net of words should be woven to capture the person’s life force––the essence of who the person is. Tell the students they should focus on the act of writing the poem. Share that the poems themselves will be destroyed, when completed, to honor the person. They may go beyond the lines when creating their poem to visually represent more than the words can share. Display the following questions for students to consider as they write their poems:

    • How do they feel when thinking about this person?
    • What is it like to remember details and work them into an object to capture and honor a person’s essence?
    • Is it a difficult or simple process?
    • What is it like to actually think about the creative process while they’re writing?
    • What form does the poem take? Do they place the words in an artistic form or are they linear?
    • Does it make a difference knowing the poem will be destroyed? Do they find themselves trying to remember what they’ve written? Will it be hard to let go?

    9. When the poems are completed, have the students share their insights on the writing process. Write the ideas on the board or flip chart.

    10. Using a trash can or bucket filled halfway with water, destroy the poems. Take time to carefully debrief students’ thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the process of creation and destruction.


    • One flip chart or writing board to write down students’ observations
    • One journal or piece of paper and pencil/pen for every student
    • A trash can or bucket with water
    • About the Art section on the Malagan Figures
    • One color photocopy of the figures for every two students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


    CO Standards

    • Visual Arts
      • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
      • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Language Arts
      • Oral Expression and Listening
      • Research and Reasoning
      • Writing and Composition
      • Reading for All Purposes

    21st Century Skills

    • Collaboration
    • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
    • Information Literacy
    • Invention
    • Self-Direction

    About the Art

    Malagan figures

    Malagan figures

    Papua New Guinea artist

    Who Made It?

    These figures come from New Ireland, a large island that is part of the country of Papua New Guinea. Malagan figures are usually carved by sculptors who live and work in the community. Sculptors use different forms and designs that are specific to each clan. Rights to the designs are owned by individual clan members, multiple different clan members, or the clan as a whole. Designs can only be reproduced by an owner of the rights, with the assistance of a sculptor. Great care is taken to avoid infringing upon the designs owned by another man or lineage. Because Malagan figures are traditionally discarded or burned after use, it is important for the owner to remember exactly what his clan’s Malagan looked like so that he will be able to reproduce the design.

    What Inspired It?

    Malagan figures are described as “skins” that contain the life force of a deceased person during a funerary ritual. The name “Malagan” is given to both the carvings and the funeral ceremonies. While the sculpture is not intended to be a picture of the deceased, it is thought of as an image of the life force that produced and animated the once living person. Funerals are considered joyous occasions. Malagan carvings take center stage in funeral rites and allow the soul of the deceased to take part in the spiritual realm of immortality. Although Malagan figures are traditionally discarded after use, ethnographers claim 5,000 to 7,000 Malagan carvings are kept in collections worldwide. Fascinated and intrigued by these sculptures, anthropologists and early colonial collectors began collecting them soon after being discarded. Sometimes, Malagan figures are sold after they have been used for their funerary purposes.


    Open Fretwork & Solid Interior
    Open Fretwork & Solid Interior

    Malagan figures appear to have two forms—the outside and the inside. Open fretwork surrounds a solid, ornately carved and painted central core. The net-like exterior is interpreted as a “trap” for the life force. The figures have been described as “bodies wrapped in images.”


    Painting is the final step in the process of making Malagan figures. The carving is washed in white paint, which is made from ashes and mixed with water from a young coconut. Black, red, and yellow paint is used to create the designs. The act of painting is thought to give the figure life.

    Rock Cod
    Rock Cod

    The large figure is a representation of a fish called the rock cod—a wam or bigmaus. The rock cod is known to live under rocks and has the unusual characteristic of becoming female with age. It serves as a symbol of fertility for the clan—with its change in sex it becomes capable of reproducing. The rock cod also connects to the matrilineal structure of the culture.

    Warrior Figures with Hornbill Heads
    Warrior Figures with Hornbill Heads

    The two smaller figures are defined as warrior figures. Each appears to be topped with a cocomo, or hornbill. The warrior attached to the nose of the fish is called the “stopper warrior,” or Kor. In this instance, the kor is interpreted as containing the life force that has entered the rock cod effigy.


    The figures’ eyes are made from the iris-like suction pods of shells, which are collected by women on the dry reef. The term for the Malagan eye is “banana shoot.”

    Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.