On this page...

Throughout Madagascar, great significance is placed on ancestors, who watch over all aspects of daily life and ensure the continuity and unity of the family and community. Ancestor spirits reside in the north-east corner of the home and in the family tomb, reflecting a strong belief in life after

The Mahafaly of southern Madagascar bury their dead inside square enclosures of wood or stone. The horns of sacrificed zebu (a type of buffalo), and carved wooden memorial posts called aloalo decorate the tombs. The word alo means 'intermediary' or 'messenger', so the memorial may help the deceased to join the community of ancestors.

Originally available only to the nobility, aloalo could later be purchased by wealthy Mahafaly. Aloalo traditionally displayed a combination of nude human figures and birds or zebu, representing prosperity. The memorials now function more as commemorative sculptures, depicting scenes from the deceased's life, or desirable material possessions.

The method and location of manufacture and the ritual slaughter of animals ensures the sculpture is imbued with the sacred spirit. The mpisoro (spiritual leader of a clan or dynasty) gathers the village men to select the wood for the sculpture and also acts as mediator between the carver and the person commissioning the piece. The workshop is located outside the village, maintaining separation between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Aloalos (grave post)

Traditionally, the tombs and aloalos were located away from villages, guarded only by ancestor spirits. After French colonisation in 1896, the tombs were exposed to the outside world. Funerary art has now moved into the international art market, where it is admired as a purely decorative object. These posts were carved by inventive Mahafaly artist Efiaimbelo, who has introduced bold colours and symbols of technology and progress.