Art from Vanuatu: Grade Figures, Slit Gongs and Spears

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Eric Kjellgren wrote: The majority of Vanuatu's sculptural traditions are, or were, created in connection with male religious institutions, such as men's houses, secret societies, and, especially, grade rituals, a hierarchical series of initiations each of which confers successively greater religious knowledge and social prestige. Similar institutions exist for women in some areas, but they do not typically involve the production of sculpture. Vanuatu's sculptural traditions are primarily confined to the northern and central regions of the archipelago and include diverse types of grade figures and other images, as well as the massive vertical slit gongs that loom over the village dancing grounds, their deep resonant rhythms accompanying ceremonies and other performances. The archipelago's numerous masking traditions are primarily associated with grade rites, initiation, and other ritual contexts and range from durable hardwood forms to more ephemeral creations fashioned from leaves, matted spiderwebs, or a papier-mache-like material made from finely chopped plants. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007; Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

Vanuatu is part of the region of Island Melanesia, which encompasses the large and varied islands and archipelagoes of the southwest Pacific whose peoples primarily share a common origin with those of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia. Stretching southeastward in a great arc from the eastern coast of New Guinea, Island Melanesia comprises the islands of New Britain and New Ireland and the archipelagoes of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. The region today is divided into a number of political entities. New Britain, New Ireland, and the northern Solomon Islands form part of Papua New Guinea. The central and eastern Solomons make up the independent nation of the Solomon Islands, and the great island chain formerly called the New Hebrides is today the nation of Vanuatu. New Caledonia, comprising the large island of Grande Terre and the islands off its shores, is under the political authority of France. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The settlement of Island Melanesia occurred in two distinct phases, widely separated in time. Humans first settled New Britain and New Ireland at least thirty-five thous and years ago, and by twenty-nine thous and years ago they had reached the northern Solomon Islands and likely spread relatively quickly to the southeastern end of the archipelago. However, the islands beyond, including the Santa Cruz group, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia, were first settled by the Lapita culture, also ancestral to the peoples of Polynesia, which began to exp and eastward into the remote islands of the Pacific only some thirty-five hundred years ago.

Island Melanesia's arts and cultures are highly diverse. Its peoples speak more than 250 different languages and practice a rich and varied array of artistic traditions. As elsewhere in Oceania, the arts of Island Melanesia are predominantly religious in nature, function, and imagery, portraying the myriad ancestors, spirits, and other supernatural beings whose powers sustain the world. Artists throughout the region produce a variety of art forms. However, specific themes tend to dominate the art of each of the primary islands and archipelagoes.

The tumultuous events of the colonial era, which saw the region's archipelagoes divided and contested at various times by Germany, Britain, France, and Australia, accompanied by the conversion of the overwhelming majority of its peoples to Christianity, had a profound effect on its indigenous arts. However, many of Island Melanesia's most spectacular art forms, such as the masking traditions of the Sulka and Baining, the malagan of New Ireland, and a large number of Vanuatu's sculptural and masking traditions, have proved astoundingly resilient, enduring uninterrupted to the present day. In recent decades, artists across the region have revived or revitalized other art forms once largely abandoned, and in some places, including Vanuatu and New Caledonia, they have pioneered a growing contemporary art movement.

Art from Melanesia

Melanesian art covers Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, the Torres Strait, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea, and is today the second most highly coveted style of Oceanic art among serious collectors. Its decorative detailing served as a great source of inspiration for many 20th-century Surrealist artists, including Rol and Tual, Wifredo Lam and Max Ernst, as well as Surrealist poets, including Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara and André Breton. [Source: Christie’s]

Melanesian art is among Oceania's most ornate and sensational art. Typical styles include sculptures with exaggerated forms, often representing sexual themes. Cannibalism is another commonly explored theme, as well as hunting and ancestral lineage. Body art including tattoos is marked by intricate geometric compositions. Melanesian art revolves around spiritual rituals and has an almost hallucinogenic quality. Some of its most famous artifacts are elaborate masks, particularly those from the 19th century. [Source:]

After 1600, like much of the rest of Oceania, Melanesian culture increasingly came into contact with European explorers, and by the 19th century, the influence of the West began to weigh heavily on its artistic traditions. Because of its often arresting appearance, Melanesian art has inspired many 20th-century Surrealist artists as well as poets such as André Breton, who wrote in Océanie (1948) that “Oceanic art has inspired our desire like no other [...]. from the start, the course of surrealism is inseparable from the power of seduction, of fascination, that Oceanic objects have exercised on us.

Vanuatu Grade Figure (Maghe Ne Wurwur)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Much of the art of central and northern Vanuatu in the southwest Pacific is associated with grade rituals, a hierarchical series of initiations, each of which confers successively greater religious and political authority during life and in the realm of the dead. In some areas, individuals who have reached the highest grades are considered the living dead, having already achieved the status of ancestors. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Men’s and women’s grade rituals exist in most areas, but sculpture is created almost exclusively for men’s grade rites. This figure is carved from fern wood, the fibrous trunk of a tree fern composed of aerial roots surrounding a woody core. During the grade rites, grade figures are erected on the dancing ground and serve as temporary abode for the spirits associated with the grade. After the ceremony, the figure, its purpose served, is left on the dancing ground, its supernatural powers waning as it slowly disintegrates. Collected soon after it was used, this particular figure retains portions of its original paint.

One Grade Figure (Maghe ne Naun or Maghe ne Hivir) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the early to mid-20th century and originates from northern Ambrym Island. Made of fernwood, earth and paint, it is 9 feet 1 inches high, with a width of 19.5 inches and a depth of 22 inches (276.9 × 49.5 × 55.9 centimeters). Another from the same time and place, possibly Fantan village, is 80 inches high, with a width of 17 inches and a depth of 18 inches (203.2 x 43.2 x 45.7 centimeters). Fernwood is the dense, fibrous "trunk" of the tree fern, composed of a mass of aerial roots surrounding a central woody core.Fern-wood figures in northern Ambrym are created exclusively in association with the initiation rites of the men's grade system known asfangkon (sacred fire).

The first figure mentioned above portrays a full, standing male figure with the hands resting on the lower abdomen. Each fern-wood figure is created for one-time use as part of a specific maghe rite. As part of the preparations for the ceremony the initiate commissions the figure from the carver, who is paid for his services in pigs. Once the carving is complete, the porous surface of the fern wood is covered with a mixture of earth or volcanic ash mixed with a binder to create a smooth surface for painting. The figure is brightly painted in black, white, green, red, and other colors, with a combination of vegetable and mineral pigments, and is then erected on the village dancing

Grade Rituals

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Although the form and number of the rites vary from island to island, and even from village to village, grade rituals always consist of a hierarchical series of initiations each of which confers a successively higher rank, or "grade," on the individual, which brings with it greater social prestige and esoteric religious knowledge. With few exceptions, social status in this region is not inherited but depends on an individual 's success in the grade system. Each successive ritual requires increasingly greater effort and expense in organizing the resources, commissioning the artworks, assembling and distributing the wealth (mainly in the form of sacred tusker pigs), and obtaining the consent of the higher-ranking individuals involved to stage each grade initiation. In most areas there are grade rituals for both men and women, but each sex practices a separate series of rites. Each elevation of grade increases an individual 's political and religious authority in life and, more important, ensures him or her of an equivalent status in the world of the dead. In some areas those who have attained the highest grades are considered to be literally the "living dead," already holding the status of ancestors before their earthly demise. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In all there are about a dozen fangkon grades, and organizing and assembling the resources necessary for each initiation ceremony often require years of planning. Fern-wood figures of various sizes and forms must be commissioned for a number of grade initiation rites (maghe) at different levels in the fangkon system. During the rites, the figures serve as the temporary abodes for the spirits associated with the specific grade.

A photograph of the climax of a maghe ne sakaran grade ceremony in Olal village, in northern Ambrym in 2001 shows two men being initiated in dance in triumph on a platform erected above a fernwood grade figure. As the initiates perform, the dancers assembled below pelt them with fruit. The large slit gongs, played during the ceremony, are visible at the right. The ground (ranhara) beneath a raised platform constructed from wood and bamboo." At the climax of the grade ritual the initiate or initiates ascend to the platform, where they dance in triumph while the dancers assembled below ritually pelt them with various projectiles. At the conclusion of the ceremony the figure is left on the dancing ground, its supernatural powers gradual waning as it slowly disintegrates.

Grade Figure from the Banks Islands

One grade figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection from the Banks Islands of Vanuatu was probably made Gaua Island. Dated to the late 19th-early 20th century, it is made of fern wood and is 8 feet 8 inches (2.6 meters). A 1908 photograph shows the front of a ceremonial house on Gaua, in the Banks Islands. A large, carved male figure like the one described above stands at the center of the ornate facade, flanked by paintings and other fern-wood sculptures.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The sculpture of the Banks Islands, in northern Vanuatu, reflects an aesthetic markedly different from that of the islands to the south. Banks Islands sculptors working in fern wood, a medium employed by many of their southern counterparts, created thin graceful images whose elongated bodies and lithe limbs contrast with the robust brooding forms of the fern-wood sculptures of Ambrym and Malakula islands. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Fern-wood images in the Banks Islands appear to have been created primarily as grade figures. In the past, male figures similar to the present work adorned the facades of dwellings and ceremonial houses, where they almost certainly portrayed powerful ancestors.' One earlytwentieth-century photograph shows a closely related figure, positioned beneath the central roof beam of a house, flanked by paintings and other fern-wood effigies representing stylized faces. Prominent men also commissioned a variety of fern-wood images, including male and female figures, as well as paintings to adorn the facades of their dwellings. Costly to commission and erect, the figures served as symbols of an individual's wealth and achievement in the complex system of grade initiations known locally as suque.

In creating the bodies of their figures, Banks Islands sculptors frequently cut away virtually all the fibrous aerial roots surrounding the tree fern 's stem to reveal the woodlike inner core, which forms the polelike base and torso. The head and limbs, carved from the fibrous outer layer, emerge from the attenuated body as lithe, graceful forms, giving the work an almost wraith like quality. The facial features are rendered as rectilinear geometric shapes; their rigid angularity contrasts with the curvilinear features of Ambrymese fern-wood images. The face is crowned by a peaked triangular form, probably representing a headdress whose form indicated the ancestor's suque rank.

Slit Gongs (Atingting Kon)

The towering slit gongs of northern Vanuatu are among the largest musical instruments in the world. Found primarily on Ambrym, Malekula, and neighboring islands, they are carved from the trunks of breadfruit trees, which are also an important food source. In each village, a number of gongs, comprising a sort of informal orchestra, st and on the village dancing ground. Gong orchestras are played at major social and religious events such as initiations, funerals, and dances. When playing, the musician stands in front of the gong and strikes the lip of the slit with a clublike wooden beater. As the gong ensemble is played, rhythms of immense variety and complexity can be produced by the carefully coordinated actions of multiple drummers.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In their basic form, slit gongs are hollowed, or partially hollowed, cylinders of wood with a narrow longitudinal opening, or slit, whose edges are struck to produce a deep, sonorous tone. When stood on the village dancing ground, the gongs tower over the percussionists who, seated or standing, strike the lip of the gong with clublike softwood mallets. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In many villages a number of gongs, constituting a sort of informal orchestra, st and on the dancing ground. These gong orchestras are played at all major social and religious events, such as grade initiations, funerals, and dances. When several gongs are played simultaneously, rhythms of immense variety and complexity can be produced by the carefully coordinated actions of multiple percussionists.

In the rugged, mountainous terrain of many of the islands, slit gongs were, and in some cases still are, also used to communicate between villages. Under proper atmospheric conditions, their sound can carry for miles through the surrounding forest and, in rare instances, across the water to neighboring islands. A complex series of local "gong languages," consisting of a system of beats and pauses, enables highly specific messages to be sent rapidly to distant locations.

One slit gong n the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was commissioned by Tain Mal and carved by Tin Mweleun in Fania village, northern Ambrym Island in the mid-to late 1960s. Made of wood and paint, it is 14 feet (4.3 meters) tall. This slit is carved in the form of a stylized ancestor image, with the face (hweten atinting) gazing down at the viewer. The most prominent features are the large diskshaped eyes, adorned with spiral designs in red, white, and green paint, representing the morning star (metan galgal). The eyes sit above a prominent, pierced nose through which sprays of leaves were once inserted as ornaments. The face is surrounded by rows of concentric tooth like projections, representing the hair (hingiye), and small arms and spiral motifs depicting sacred pigs' tusks appear on either side. The long vertical slit represents the mouth (tute), from which the ancestor 's "voice" emerges as sound whenever the gong is played. The Metropolitan 's slit gong is exceptional in that, unlike the vast majority of Pacific sculptures, it was created by persons whose identities are known. As in many Pacific societies, conceptions of authorship in works of art in northern Ambrym differ from those of the West.

Making Slit Gongs

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Although the names of the carver or carvers who fashion a particular work are remembered, the northern Ambrymese recognize the individual who commissions the work (rather than the person or persons who make it) as its creator. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Another slit goong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made by Tin Mweleun and commissioned by Tain Mal). Dating to the mid-to late 1960s, it originates from Ambrym Island and is made from wood and paint. It is 14 feet 7.25 inches high, with a width of 28 inches and a depth of 23.5 inches (445.1 × 71.1 × 59.7 centimeters). In the 1960s Chief Ta in Mal, was the highest-ranking man in Fania village. It was carved by Tin Mweleun, an accomplished carver of slit-gong faces, who lived and worked in a nearby village. Although identified as the sole carver, he would likely have been assisted in the more labor-intensive parts of the project, such as the rough shaping and hollowing of the gong, which is carved from the trunk of a breadfruit tree. Tin Mweleun was active during the 1960s and carved several large slit gongs in northern Ambrym during this period.

According to Tain Mal's sons, Chief Etul Ngalgal Mweleun and James Tainmal, Tin Mweleun used magic in order to carve the face quickly and correctly: he squeezed various supernaturally powerful leaves into the water of a drinking coconut and drank the liquid, and he applied leaves to his eyes in order to make his vision "clear." Once completed, the gong was transported to Fania, where it was erected on one of the dancing grounds (ranhara).' The slit gongs are also commonly referred to as "slit drums." In musicological classification, the gongs, which are hollow cylinders struck with an external clapper, are technically bells 8. An individual's name changes throughout life based on the level he or she has achieved in northern Ambrym's complex system of maghe, or grade initiations (Huffman 1999, p. 288). Thus, the names Tain Mal and Tin Mweleun are those of the grade titles these two men bore rather than their birth names.

A photograph from 2001 shows Chief Etul Ngalgal Mweleun, the highest-ranking man in Fania village, northern Ambrym, standing in full ceremonial dress with two of the large slit gongs (atingting kon) erected on one of the village dancing grounds (ranhara), 2001. The Metropolitan's slit gong originally stood on a nearby dancing ground in the same village, and its imagery is virtually identical to that of the gongs seen in the photo.

Big Nambas Spears

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art” In former times chiefs of the Big Nambas people of northwestern Malakula possessed a specialized category of spears that served as fearsome vehicles of retribution. Measuring some nine to ten feet (roughly three meters) in length, these spears consisted of a long bamboo shaft surmounted by a carved wood foreshaft adorned with glowering bifacial heads representing powerful ancestors.

Tipped with points of human bone (a powerful and dangerous material), inserted into a slot in the projection extending from the top of the head, and secured in place with lengths of cordage, the spears combined physical and supernatural components to create a formidable weapon.

Owned by chiefs, these spears were used primarily by maho, a class of professional assassins in the employ of individual chiefs, who sent them to kill their enemies in order to avenge insults, infractions of customary law, or deaths caused by warfare or malevolent magic. The spears rapidly fell into disuse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the advent of Western firearms.

During this period, the carved foreshafts were frequently sold to Western collectors. However, prior to these transactions the Big Nam bas typically removed the most powerful component, the bone point, and preserved it within the community, where many remain today.

The deeply modeled angular features of the heads on Big Nambas spears take the human face to the limits m its of abstraction. In the present work the central feature is the nose, with a narrow bridge and flaring winglike nostrils, whose form is echoed by the prominent brow. A bandlike, slightly smiling mouth composed of thin, nested curves appears below the nose, its form mirrored in the long, bladelike chin. A thin conical projection, which once held the bone spear point, extends from the top of the head, and a small portion of the original bamboo shaft, tightly lashed to the wood portion with fiber, appears at the base.

A spear foreshaft from northwestern Malakula Island in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made by the Big Nambas people in the late 19th-early 20th century from wood, bamboo and fiber. It is 19.8 inches (48.6 centimeters) in length.

Helmet Mask (Temes Mbalmbal)

A Helmet Mask (Temes Mbalmbal)in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the mid-20th century and originates in southwest Malakula island in Vanuatu. Made from wood, vegetable fiber, pig tusks, glass, metal and paint, it is 28.5 inches high, with a width of 17 inches and a depth of 18 inches (72.4 × 43.2 × 45.7 centimeters). Another from the same time and place is made of the same materials and is 26 inches (66 centimeters) tall.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Worn over the head like a helmet, this fragile and dramatic mask was created in the southwestern region of Malakula. Like many forms of ni-Yanuatu sculpture, masks of this type were among the complex ritual paraphernalia associated with the men's grade societies, a series of successive ceremonial initiations, or "grades," through which the individual passes in order to achieve progressively greater religious and social status. Each grade rite involves elaborate ceremonial protocols, the sacrifice of substantial numbers of pigs, and, frequently, the commissioning and use of specific forms of ceremonial headgear, sculpture, and architecture. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The peoples of southwestern Malakula practice two parallel types of grade societies-Nimangki and Nalawan. Masks, referred to collectively as temes mbalmbal, are associated specifically with Nalawan ceremonies. Serving as temporary homes for the spirits of recently departed ancestors, temes mbalmbal are worn by initiated men during one of the climactic stages of the rites.

Although the mask is of a type connected exclusively with male ritual activities, the main subject of the present work is a woman. The large central face, which concealed that of the wearer, depicts Nevimbumbaau, a powerful female being who appears widely in local oral tradition and, paradoxically, created or is associated with a number of the fundamental elements of men's grade rites, which today are forbidden to women. Although her face appears placid, two sharp boars' tusks sprout from the sides of her mouth. Similar tusks flank the mouths of important beings throughout southwestern Malakula sculpture and also appear, at times, on the overmodeled skulls of important deceased individuals. Their presence indicates that the subject is, or has become, an idealized being combining the finest qualities of the two most important and sacred entities in ni-Yanuatu culture, humans and tusker pigs.

A smaller, tuskless, male figure, possibly representing Nevimbumbaau's husband, Ambat Molondr, sits astride her massive head. Like many sculptures in the region, the mask is constructed using a technique similar to papiermache in which a solid core (in this instance consisting of fern wood and fiber) is overmodeled with a paste made from finely chopped plant materials. Once hardened, the surface is painted using a combination of local pigments.

This work also includes paint made from washing blue (an early form of clothes whitener introduced by European traders), a substance used in many parts of Melanesia to create a deep cobalt blue paint. Nevimbumbaau's eyes are also made from trade goods, a hexagonal metal nut and a green glass marble. In the remote interior of southwestern Malakula, which had little sustained contact with the West until the last quarter of the twentieth century, such items would, until comparatively recently, have been rare and valuable objects.

P'naret Gable Ornaments

Eric Kjellgren wrote: As in much of Melanesia, the center of male social and religious life among the Big Nambas people of northwestern Malakula is, or was, the amel (amèl), or men 's house. In former times, each village had one or more amel, which served as meeting places and for the storage of ancestral skulls, magic stones, and other sacred objects.' The facade of the amel was triangular, consisting of a single gable supported by a central ridgepole; the steeply sloping sides of the thatched roof extended all the way to the ground. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The peak of the gable was surmounted by the p'naret, an imposing gable ornament carved from fern wood and attached to the end of the ridgepole. Depicting the visage of the founding ancestor of the amel, the p'naret was positioned horizontally, allowing the ancestor to gaze down at the entrance. As each man entered or left, he was scrutinized by the watching ancestor, who could inflict supernatural punishment on individuals who were unauthorized to enter or who had committed breaches of customary law.

Each p'naret portrays a specific founding ancestor. The imagery, however, is highly conventionalized, depicting the rugged facial features as a series of deeply modeled forms, which at times appear almost abstract. In the present work the upper and lower portions of the face are compressed, whereas the central portion is greatly enlarged, with a ridgelike nose flanked by large triangular nostrils. Large protruding cheekbones, often mistaken for eyes by Western observers, appear above the nostrils, and the eyes are reduced to small lozenge shapes incorporated into the prominent brow ridge. The back of the head, invisible from the ground, was typically adorned with a stylized animal, reportedly representing a dog or lizard.

P'naret were commissioned from specialist artists belonging to a single clan, whose members were set apart in that they did not participate in the elaborate system of grade initiations practiced by other men. The sculptor was paid for his services with a tusker pig, considered the most sacred and valuable animal throughout Vanuatu.

One P'na ret in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made on Malakula Island in Vanuatu by the Big Nambas people in the mid-20th century from fern wood. It is 41 inches (104.1 centimeters) tall. Another from the same time was made Amok village in Malakula, and was made by the Big Nambas people from Fernwood. It is 53.5 inches high, with a width of 14 inches and a depth of 10 inches (135.9 × 35.6 × 25.4 centimeters). Another from the same time place is 42 inches long, 16 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep (106.7 × 40.6 × 47 centimeters).

Platters (Siye Kon) from Ambrym Island

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Although employed for the preparation and serving of food, wood plates and platters in central and northern Vanuatu were far more than utilitarian objects. Typically used only on special occasions or for the preparation of certain foods, large wood vessels, especially elaborately carved examples were restricted to high-ranking, or at least initiated, men and ser ed ass mbols and accoutrements of sacred and secular authorit.' This massive footed platter was carved on the island of Ambrym. Its ornately carved underside, shown here, indicates that it is a siye kon (sacred plate), a tangible symbol of the diner or diners' power, prestige, and rank in the island 's complex system of maghe (grade initiations). When in use. it would have been placed horizontal!, with the postlike projections that form the "eyes' of the two stylized faces serving as legs. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The upper surface fiat and undecorated, was used for the preparation and serving of nalot, a pudding-like food made, on Ambrym, from cooked breadfruit pounded into a thick paste. The term nalot comes from Bislama (the English-based lingua franca of Vanuatu). Similar to the Hawaiian term poi, it refers to the method of preparing the food (pounding) rather than to the specific ingredients.

Under the elaborate ceremonial restrictions of the maghe system, men of each rank were expected to eat apart, seated around a separate sacred fire. Thus, ever group of men of equal rank had a separate siye kon on which they prepared and ate their nalot. The highestranking men, who often had no peers, were frequently required to prepare and eat their nalot in solitary splendor, each man using a separate platter appropriate to his status. When not in use the platters were hung from the walls to display their richly carved undersides. On Ambrym, the most elaborate examples typically portray stylized faces, possibly representing ancestral spirits.

One such platter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is dated to the 19th-early 20th century and originates from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu. Made of wood, it is 5.87 inches high, with a width of 12 inches and a depth of 5 inches and a length of 34 inches (14.9 × 30.5 × 12.7 × 86.4 centimeters). Another from the same time and place is 33 inches (85.7 centimeters) tall.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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