Memory & Song

Malagan figures
Mid 1900s

Students will list colors, shapes, and images they see in the Malagan figures. The teacher will then put the items on the list into a song (using a familiar tune) to help students remember all that they saw.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 30–35 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • share aloud with classmates at least one observation about the Malagan figures;
  • name at least three colors, three shapes, and one image on the Malagan figures; and
  • memorize and sing a song using at least eight features of the figures observed by classmates.


  1. Have students sing a song with hand and body motions to get out the wiggles and prepare them for the activity.
  2. Distribute the picture, or show it on the wall/screen. Ask students to look closely at the pictures of the figures and try to see as many different things as possible.
  3. Have students share what they see and write down their observations. You can probe to learn what colors they see, if they know what animal it is, and if they can tell what’s on the fish’s nose. Have them also share words they think of when they look at the pictures.
  4. Selecting eight of the items, combine the words into a song using a tune familiar to the students. Try and add body movements to different parts of the song. Repetition is helpful. The goal is to use the music and motions so students remember the words to the song.
  5. For older students, you can share that the artists had to remember all of the shapes and colors of the Malagan figures, without writing them down, in order to make the same figure when needed in the future. You can also share the use and purpose of the figures with older students.


  • One flip chart or writing board to write down students’ observations
  • About the Art section on the Malagan figures
  • One color photocopy of the figures for every three to four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Malagan figures

Mid 1900s
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

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

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

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 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.