Malagan figures



  • New Ireland


  • Papua New Guinea

Object Info

Object: figure; malagan
Currently on view
Object ID: 2001.177A-C


wood, paint, fiber and shell


Gift of Joan and George Anderman


About the Artist

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.”

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Artists who make Malagan figures make their own paints from natural materials. Have your students experiment with making paint using materials they find outside. Materials can include leaves, flower petals, bark, seeds, etc.
  • Malagan figures are meant to be a kind of trap for the life force of a deceased person. Have students bring an object that they treasure to class, and design a container to keep it in. Think about images and patterns that would protect the object and reflect the importance of what is inside.

This video shows the importance that the Malagan Figures have to the people of New Ireland.

This video shows the importance that the Malagan figures have to the people of New Ireland.

Funding for object education resources 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.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.