The island of New Ireland is located in the Melanesian arc, to the north-east of New Guinea. New Ireland, along with its neighbour New Brittany and several other smaller islands, make up the Bismarck Archipelago. The name of the archipelago evokes its colonial past: like the northern part of New Guinea, it was a German colony from 1880 to 1914.
The islands of the Bismarck Archipelago were subsequently placed under Australian protectorate, but are now part of the State of Papua New Guinea.
The Dutch navigator Willem Schouten discovered the unexplored archipelago in 1616; the first accounts of its inhabitants appeared in 1643.
New Ireland objects, which were exceptionally refined, appealed to Europeans from the start and began entering public collections in the mid-19th century. The following decades were marked by a period of intense creativity in the north of the island. German colonisation played a major part in systemizing the collection of these works of art. Museums in Germany were the main beneficiaries and greatly enriched their collections with the impressive sculptures brought back by travellers and ethnologists.
At the beginning of the 20th century, artists, in turn, became fascinated by the inventiveness of New Ireland art. The German expressionist painter Emil Nolde took part in a medical expedition to the island; his discoveries served as a source of inspiration for his work. Later, the artists and writers of the Surrealist Movement, such André Breton, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, amongst others, also began collecting sculptures from this particular area of the world.
A second generation of artists – including Roberto Matta and Arman – were also interested in these pieces, which over time became increasingly rare and valued.
22 languages are currently spoken in New Ireland. The island also has an impressive number of social communities, each with its own special rites, objects and related artistic traditions.
Death and the cult of the ancestors are of prime importance to the people of New Ireland. One of the best examples of this tradition is the malagan ceremony, which takes place in the north of the island and marks the end of the period of mourning. The imposing ritual is performed to honour the deceased and their families: according to the inhabitants of this part of the island, it is only by accepting “to end death” that humans can harness its energy and transfer its vital force to a member of the clan. The deceased is then able to join the world of the spirits and of his ancestors and ensure that those who remain on earth are protected.
Objects have an important role in this ultimate stage in life; when displayed, they embody the true meaning of the ceremony. In fact, a sculpture is significant only if it is active, and consequently effective, in festivities marking the life of a community: births, initiation rites, funerals, and commemorations of the dead.
In the south of the island, tubuan masks, produced in secrecy, are offered to young initiates.
These masks continue to be used today. They have retained all their power as they have never been taken out of their land of origin. No tubuan mask has ever been exhibited in public collections.
There are other types of ceremonies in New Ireland as well; some, for example, resemble theatrical pantomimes and are meant for entertainment.
New Ireland objects are closely linked to social rules and regulations. Each sculpted piece is inseparable from the world of ancestors and spirits at the heart of Melanesian life. A work of art never represents an ancestor however: rather, it expresses their presence among men.
The art of New Ireland is one of the most spectacular in Oceania.
The sculptures are distinguished by their formal virtuosity, imposing size and complex motifs. Human and animal figures merge and intermingle, creating imaginary beings rooted in the depths of mythology.
Malagan statues have a very special place in Melanesian art. They are characterized by the very subtle interplay between sculpture and painting in the core of their structure. They give the impression of infinite variations around the same theme. These variations, with their highlights, delicate articulations and punctuations, are precisely what make malagan art so original and highly creative.
The masks place more emphasis on the original use of natural materials. The poetry of these New Ireland pieces stems from the association of all these very different elements, underscoring the harmony that exists between mankind and his natural environment.
Artists have always been respected and recognised members of the group to which they belong. They are guardians of a special know-how and their work serves to protect it.
It is interesting to note that objects in New Ireland were never created to be sold. The works that have made their way to Europe were purchased after they were no longer used and had ceased to be “active.”
New Ireland art endures, even if the styles have evolved over time and within each region. Masked dances are still very present today; they are performed at important rituals and attest to the continuity of ceremonies and beliefs. A documentary filmed in September 2006 and shown at this exhibition bears witness to the strength of these traditions.
The exhibition presents an overview of New Ireland arts, and includes a variety of very beautiful decorative objects.