The history of the malagan ceremonies of northern New Ireland has been lucidly outlined and all previous information brought together by Michael Gunn and his collaborators in the masterly New Ireland (Paris 2006) catalogue to the exhibition.
He explains that malagan is a dynamic living tradition which changes around a stable structural core, a means by which a man can adequately honour the person he marries, and when a person dies, those traditions are used to operate the funerary ceremonies, and, at a later stage, to honour the memory of the deceased. Carvings made for the second burial are left to decay after the ceremonies and have been eagerly sought after by ex patriots.
The present figure is very similar to, and it is tempting to think it might be the pair to, a male figure in the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde, in Cologne (Kunst und Kultur aus der Südsee, Cologne, 1987, p.154, fig. 138) The male figure, which entered the museum in 1900, has a hermit crab on the head and holds a flying fish, with further flying fish about the lower part and rosettes between. When describing another male figure with a sea creature on its head, in this case an octopus, in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin (op.cit.2006, p.223, Pl.86), Gunn writes 'It is not clear why some animals are depicted in the art of northern New Ireland and why others are not. Fish, birds and snakes form a large part of the repertoire, several varieties of lizard are also shown, as is the occasional octopus. But dogs, sharks and crocodiles are all missing from the iconography. Flying fish are probably the most commonly depicted animal, for almost every malagan sculpture of a human figure has a flying fish held in front of the body, biting the chin of the main figure. Several malagan specialists told us that the flying fish represents the speech of a leader, travelling far'.