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In this catalogue of art works from New Ireland, the Barbier-Mueller Museum is portrying art as a product of the interaction between people, mediated by their understanding of themselves as products of the life-force. The works themselves stand as bonds of art linking people to each other and to their ancestors.
New Ireland, a long and fertile land in island Melanesia, has been the source of some of the most remarkable art works to come out of the Pacific region. From the Northern parts of New Ireland the tradition of malagan has produced an almost bewildering range of masks and ancestral sculpture, created for a moment of sorrow and anguish, then destroyed. Further south, up in the heavily forested karst landscape of the Rossell Mountains, Uli figures were used to develop fertility from death. Skulls of dead weather-men were over-modelled and used for their connections with otherwise untapped powers.
In the Punam region of the central part of New Ireland, ancestral figures were made from limestone and were used to house the roaming spirits of the dead. Further south the people used barkcloth and wooden masks to promote fertility and to gain the assistance of wild bush spirits.
New Ireland has been inhabited by humans for at least 33,000 years, perhaps longer. Apart from historical records, we have no idea how long New Irelanders have been producing art works, but as art production appears to be a basic trait of all humans, it is reasonable to suppose that the art traditions of New Ireland have a considerable depth in antiquity.
Although we tend to think of New Irelanders as a single group of people, until relatively recently, 19 different languages were spoken by the 100,000 inhabitants of this long mountainous island. Boundaries between cultural and linguistic groups are not generally abrupt, but characterised more by isolated villages, separated by terrain and by choice.
New Irelanders are swidden agriculturalists, cutting then burning clearings in the secondary forest to plant a number of staple crops which include taro, sweet potato, bananas, yams, and tapioca. Garden magic as well as more commonly accepted agricultural techniques are used to promote healthy crops in the fertile volcanic soil. They keep pigs which are killed and eaten during ritual events, and catch fish which abound in the crystal clear waters of the coastal reefs.
Ritualised shark hunting was practiced in many parts of New Ireland, with men snaring a shark with a noose, then wrestling it into a canoe. This action was more than a test of man against animal, for many New Irelanders traced their spiritual ancestry to specific sharks.
Until the influx of Western traders then the German Colonial Administration of 1884, New Ireland was a comparatively violent society, with inter-village raids and cannibalism quite common. It is not clear whether this was a relatively recent phenomenon or had been a long-term problem. But it is clear that the art traditions of the New Ireland flourished during this pre-colonial period.
Prestige and reciprocity had a major influence of the creation of art works, particularly in the northern regions. Traditionally, there was only one road to high status in northern New Ireland, and that was through the malagan traditions which enabled people to produce art works to honour the dead in the clan of the people they married. Today there are a number of alternative roads to status, and the art producing traditions of New Ireland no longer have the full force of social bonding behind them.
Most of the art traditions of New Ireland appear to have been linked to ancestor cults, or to efforts to control fertility and the weather. People are born from a reproductive life-force, and art works were used to represent or to house aspects of this life-force. The design for each work of art was owned by individuals and by clans, and resulted from designs which were passed from one generation to the next. As such, the art traditions of New Ireland have an ancient history, and the art which resulted from these traditions show many facets which are derived from a long forgotten past.