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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Funerary Arts

Among the Sakalava, Mahafaly, and Merina peoples, funerary monuments were erected for deceased members of important families. Many of these burial practices still exist today, although it is likely that they have changed over time. In western Madagascar, the Sakalava place their dead in rectilinear enclosures of wood fencing, the corners of which are embellished with figural sculptures, typically bird figures complemented by representations of men and women (1978.412.577). Taken as a whole, the sculptural program evokes the balance, harmony, and symmetry of the physical and metaphysical worlds. The birds, which may appear singly or in pairs, are called mijoa and are believed to represent the interconnection of life and death, while the opposition of male and female human figures suggests fertility and the complementarity of the sexes. Humans are frequently depicted undressed, and in a region of rich textile traditions this nakedness is striking. It is likely that these images of exposed genitalia reinforce concepts of reproduction and regeneration rather than relate to the specific individual commemorated. Another form of wood sculpture, called voly-hety, is placed at the burial sites of important clans. Measuring approximately two meters in height, these tall, narrow stelae consist of stacked geometric shapes such as circles and semi-circles, as well as horizontal and diagonal lines. Finally, great poles with figurative finials, known as hazomanga, were erected in places of honor within the village (2001.408). These monuments also relate to ideas of ancestral presence and the interconnection of life and death.


The Mahafaly peoples of southern Madagascar mark their tombs with sculptures known as aloalo. Like the Sakalava voly-hety, these are wood stelae of monumental size, carved with elaborate geometric designs such as crescents and open circles. These motifs are typically surmounted by figural carvings representing humans, birds, or zebu, the distinctively humped and crescent-horned cattle that are central to the wealth and well-being of the peoples of the Malagasy plains. As illustrated by a twentieth-century aloalo from the Museum’s collection, human figures are also sometimes found at the base (1998.317.1). The context in which these posts are placed is dramatic and imposing. The Mahafaly inter their dead in family tombs, large and solid boxlike structures of cut and natural stone that loom large in the semi-arid scrub of southern Madagascar. Multiple aloalo posts sprout from the tops of these forms, and the skulls and spreading horns of zebu cattle sacrificed during funeral ceremonies are arranged beneath them. The term aloalo is thought to derive from the root alo, which means messenger or intermediary, and is also related to the craft of weaving. This suggests that aloalo were considered a point of connection between the living and the dead, and reinforces the link between textiles and funerary rituals.

Merina burial structures of the central highlands bear no sculptural forms. Instead, geometric motifs are painted or incised on the stone walls of these houses for the dead. Ultimately, the most important artistic elements of these tombs are the lavish lambda mena that swathe the remains of the deceased inside. Lambda mena were gifts to the dead used in ceremonies of reburial to comfort the souls of the deceased and protect them from the pollution of death and decomposition. Historically, the tombs were opened during important royal ceremonies to allow the textiles to be displayed, reinforcing the king’s connection to his royal ancestors.