Art in the Solomon Islands: Pendants, Breastplates and Canoe Ornaments

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Eric Kjellgren wrote: In the past much of Solomon Island art centered on the creation and embellishment of ornate war and fishing canoes, weapons, canoe ornaments, and canoe houses, which formed central elements of male social and religious life. [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]

Solomon Islander artists are especially notable for their highly sophisticated traditions of shell inlay, in which delicately carved sections of mother-of-pearl or white shell are inset into the black-painted or darkly colored surfaces of figures, canoes, feast bowls, shields (cat no. 99), and other objects, creating a pleasing contrast. Solomon Islanders also create a rich variety of ornate jewelry and other personal ornaments in white shell, porpoise teeth, turtle shell, mother-of-pearl, and other materials. Masking traditions were largely absent in the Solomons, in contrast to other areas of Island Melanesia. They were restricted there to a small number of islands at the northern end of the archipelago.

Personal adornment is one of the most important modes of artistic expression in the Santa Cruz Islands, a remote archipelago that lies between the eastern Solomon Islands and northern Vanuatu. For major dance festivals, men don elaborate and costly ensembles of ceremonial attire consisting of ornate dance skirts, plumed head ornaments, and lavish arrays of ceremonial jewelry.

Across Solomon Islands, men and women wear a wide variety of shell pendants and chest adornments. Made using materials from the land and the sea, adornments can communicate the status of the wearer, transform the body for ceremony, provide protection, or enable communication with ancestors. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Personal ornaments, rings, and ceremonial objects fashioned from the white, marblelike shell of the giant clam were made and prized by many Melanesian peoples.' The art of working giant-clam shell reached its apogee in the Solomon Islands. Here, using only bow drills, abrasives, and saws made from vines kept continuously coated with s and and water, artists created an astonishing diversity of objects from this technically challenging medium, nearly as hard as stone.

Island Melanesia

The Solomon Islands is considered part if Island Melanesia. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The region of Island Melanesia 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.

Examples of Solomon Islands Art

A leimuba (supernatural being) from Nendö, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands has a wooden body with a woven loincloth, beaded anklets, and shell representing a conch. The surface of this sculpture was once covered in turmeric, which the people of Nendö believed contained supernatural properties. A canoe prow figure nguzunguzu is made from wood, pigments, resin and shell. It is 16.5 x 9 x 15.5 centimeters and comes from Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia Archipelago, Solomon Islands. [Source: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

A Necklace (Bakiha) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made on New Georgia Island in the late 19th-early 20th century from tridacna shell, turtle shell, shell, glass beads, porpoise teeth, seeds, fiber and cloth. An Ear Ornament from New Georgia Island was made in the mid to late 19th century from wood, chambered nautilus shell and paint and is 1.12 inches deep with a diameter of 3.25 inches (2.9 x 8.3 centimeters). Charms (Nuosalo) from Temotu province in the Santa Cruz Islands date to late 19th-early 20th century and are made of wood. One example is 5.62 inches high, with a width of 8.37 inches and a depth of 2 inches (14.3 x 21.3 x 5.1 centimeters). Another is 7.87 inches high, with a width of 6 inches (20 x 15.2 centimeters). Yet another made of wood, pig's tails and fiber is 2.5 inches high, with a width of 8.25 inches (6.4 x 21 centimeters).

Masks are rare in the Solomon Islands and were only regularly made on Nissan, Buka, and Bougainville, the northernmost islands in the archipelago. One mask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of barkcloth, paint, wood, and bamboo. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it originates from Bougainville or Nissan Island and , Bougainville province, Nissan or Bougainville Island and was made by the Bougainville or Nissan Island from Barkcloth, paint, wood, bamboo and is 29.5 inches high, with a width of 26.5 inches and a dpeth of 15 inches (74.9 × 331.5 × 38.1 centimeters). This boldly painted mask, made of barkcloth stretched over a cane frame and worn over the head like a helmet. Masks similar in some respects to those of Bougainville occur on the nearby island of Nissan, where they represent a dangerous spirit named Kokorra. While the precise significance and imagery of this Bougainville mask is uncertain, the upraised ears, prominent brow ridge, wide staring eyes, and bared teeth indicate that it too may depict a fearsome spirit.

Solomon Islands Pendants

A pendant (Ulute or papafita) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection possibly Malaita Island in the eastern Solomon Islands was made in the 19th-early 20th century from Tridacna shell and pigment. It is 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) tall. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Distinctive circular or elliptical ornaments, fashioned from giant-clam shell and engraved with delicate designs infilled with black pigment, were widespread in the eastern Solomon lslands. On the islands of Malaita, Maramasike, and Ulawa such ornaments, called ulute, were worn by men around the neck as pendants. On the island of Santa Ana, where they were known as papafita, they were reported ly worn on the head or on the outer side of the upper arm. Examples have also been recorded on the islands of Makira {San Cristobal) and Arosi.

Throughout the region the ornaments share a similar composition, consisting of a broad central field contained within an outer border, at times rendered as a single line or row of circles but often, as here, made up of one or more rings of minutely detailed geometric designs. The central composition, depicting birds, fish, cross-shaped motifs, or curvilinear designs, is always strictly symmetrical. The imagery and composition of the present work are closely similar to those of examples collected on the island of Malaita, from which it may have originated.

A man’s pendant from Western province, New Georgia Island was made of conus shell in the early to mid-20th century and is 2.25 inches high, with a width of 2.12 inches and a depth of 0.25 inches (5.7 x 5.4 x 0.6 centimeters). This pendant, would have been worn by men for both every day and ceremonial occasions. Similar pendants could also be carved from nautilus shell or Tridacna (giant clam). It’s design features two mirrored pairs of frigatebirds.

There are parallels between the adornment of human bodies and that of canoes in Solomon Islands. The mirrored frigate bird design seen here is also often replicated in canoe prow adornment in New Georgia. Pendants such as this are sometimes tied to the prows of canoes to increase the speed of the vessels and to ensure their safe passage on the ocean. Both the human body and canoes are seen as vessels capable of harnessing ancestral power when properly adorned.

Frigate Birds on Solomon Islands Pendants

Many Solomon Islands pendants are decorated with stylized images of frigate birds. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Depicted widely in Solomon Islands art, these imposing black seabirds are immediately recognizable by their characteristic hooked beaks and the distinctive M-shaped configuration of their wings. Frigate birds were important harbingers of the annual appearance of immense schools of bonito, a large silvery-blue fish greatly prized as food.

The arrival of the bonito, which churned the calm sea into a dense boiling mass when they encountered the schools of smaller fish on which they fed, was a spectacular and unpredictable event believed to be controlled by spirits. Visible from afar, frigate birds and other seabird species signaled the presence of bonito as they hovered over and dived into the dramatic feeding frenzy, which often attracted sharks, animals that were closely associated with the spirit world and that also frequently appear on ulute.

The name for frigatebirds in the New Georgia Islands is mbelama, which is also one of the names given to pendants produced there. The frigatebird plays an important role in the art and cosmology of Solomon Islands and wider Pacific. As a hunter of the sea and sky, frigate birds are seen to embody the qualities of a warrior as well as a guide to fishermen. Frigate birds also herald the annual arrival of large schools of bonito fish, which play a vital role in the economic and ceremonial lives of Solomon Islanders.

Kapkap (Pendant or Head Ornament)

A kapkap is pendant or head ornament. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, one displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is made from Tridacna shell, turtle shell and fiber and is half an inch deep with a diameter of 5.25 inches (1.3 × 13.3 centimeters). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The kapkap is a form of adornment found throughout Solomon Islands, Island New Guinea and parts of mainland Papua New Guinea. The term kapkap originates from New Ireland, where this example was made, but has also become widely adopted in museums for related adornments from across the region. Kapkap are comprised of a polished disk of giant clamshell (Tridacna gigas) overlaid with a delicate fretwork of carved turtle shell. Throughout Oceania, the luminosity, hardness, and durability of the giant Tridacna clamshell are highly valued. While the grinding of the clamshell into a perfectly round disk is undertaken by a group of men, the carving of the turtle shell is performed by a single specialist (the aitak) who works alone and in seclusion. The turtle shell and clamshell are then tied together using string that is threaded through a hole in the center of the disk. Some kapkap incorporate an additional element of a colorful seed pod or glass trade bead at its center. The materiality and manufacture of kapkap both indicate the prestige of these adornments. It takes immense skill to carve the turtle shell into such intricate and symmetrical geometric designs. The circular form and solid permanence of the clam shell disks also refers to the cyclical and eternal nature of time.

Kapkap would primarily be worn by men as a marker of status. The larger the kapkap, and the larger the fretwork design, the higher the status bestowed. In New Ireland they are most often worn as a chest ornament, suspended from the neck, though in Solomon Islands they are commonly worn on the forehead. The wearer of a kapkap in New Ireland is known as a maimai, or one who has the right to speak on behalf of the clan. In some dialects, the name kapkap is itself translated as knowledge. Kapkap are formally presented to a new maimai during the feasts that accompany malangan mortuary ceremonies. The wearing and ownership of kapkap signifies the maimai’s authority and proximity with the powerful forces associated with the ancestral domain.

One kapkap from the Solomon Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made in late 19th-early 20th century from Tridacna shell, turtle shell, fiber and glass beads. It is 4.87 inches (12.4 centimeters) in diameter,

Solomon Islands Money Coil (Tevau)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: One of the most remarkable forms of currency found throughout Oceania are tevau, feather money coils from the Santa Cruz Islands in Temotu Province at the eastern end of the Solomon Islands chain. The manufacture of tevau was localized to the island of Ndende (Nendö), but as valuables they were traded through the Reef and Duff Islands to the north. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The coils are made from the feathers of the scarlet honeyeater (Myzomela cardinalis), known locally as mungau. Throughout much of the Pacific, red feathers are revered as a sacred and spiritually charged material and as such they are a valuable exchange item. The production of tevau is the work of three distinct specialists. One man was responsible for trapping the birds and harvesting their feathers. Another would fix the red feathers into small plates by using tree gum to adhere them to structure of larger pigeon feathers. A third specialist would assemble the plates onto a woven base supported by a bark coil. The specialist knowledge involved in making tevau was held in certain family lines and tightly guarded. According to legend, the knowledge was first taught to humans by forest dwelling spirits, who warned that if the men shared what they had learned they would lose their good fortune.

The value of tevau is determined by its size and quality of the red feathers. A tevau of this size would likely contain the feathers of 300 or more birds and have taken hundreds of hours to make. The value of the coils would decline as the feathers weathered and faded so the most valued were those that were vital, red and fresh. A turtle shell charm placed inside this coil further adds to its value. The stings of coix seeds and small shells that are attached to the piece are a marker of time and labor involved in its manufacture, and are placed at the start, end and center point of the coil. For both spiritual and environmental protection, tevau would be stored wrapped in leaves and suspended from the rafters of houses, where the smoke from fires would ward away insects while wooden charms placed in the wrappings protected against malevolent spirits.

Tevau could be used in payment for high value items such as canoes and the pigs that are central to the village economies in many Pacific cultures. Tevau also played an important role in the payment of bride wealth — the compensation to the bride’s family for the loss of her generative potential as a mother and grower of crops. Other uses for tevau included compensation payments to settle disputes, presentations to ancestral spirits, and as payments for courtesans from the Reef Islands who were purchased to reside in the men’s house.

During the twentieth century, knowledge of how to make tevau largely diminished in the islands, as cash replaced feather money within the local economy. However, in recent years there have been attempts in Temotu Province to revive tevau, and in the year 2000 three men from Noipe village in Santa Cruz were trained in the sacred knowledge of tevau making.

One Tevau in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of feathers, fiber, bark, seeds, shell, glass beads and leaves. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it originates from Temotu Province in the Santa Cruz Islands and is 21 inches high, with a width of 30.5 inches, a depth of 5 inches and a length of 26 feet 9 inches (53.3 × 77.5 × 12.7 × 815.3 centimeters)

Solomon Islands Breastplates

Once among the most highly prized forms of Santa Cruz jewelry are circular breastplates known in the various local dialects as tema, tambe, or tepatu. Comprising a large disk made from giant-clam shell with a dark openwork overlay of turtle shell, which creates a pleasing contrast, tema represent a local variant of the kapkap, a form of ornament found widely in Melanesia

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In the Santa Cruz Islands, part of Temotu Province, one of the most distinctive forms of adornment are tema — breastplates made from the shell of the giant clam (Tridacna gigas) with an overlay of carved turtle shell. Originating from Ndende (Nendö) Island, these necklaces would once have been worn by warriors and men of high status. Today, they are worn by men participating in initiation dances and other ceremonial performances, such as the Nelo dance, where they are worn in pairs with one displayed on the chest of the dancer and one worn on the back. The form of tema is also replicated in contemporary jewelry from Solomon Islands made for both genders. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Each element of these pendants is made by a different specialist. One individual would grind down the Tridacna shell into a perfect disk, while another would carve out the delicate turtle shell design. Unlike the kapkap that are found throughout other parts of Solomon Islands, the turtle shell overlay on tema does not cover most of the Tridacna but rather extends from the top to the center of the disc, where a hole is drilled to allow the overlay to be tied down.

One breastplate (Tema, Tambe, or Tepatu) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of Tridacna shell, turtle shell, trade cloth and fiber. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it originates from Temotu province in the Santa Cruz Islands and .30 inches deep and 7.5 inches in diameter (0.5 × 19.1 centimeters). Another is 7.3 inches (18.7 centimeters) in diameter.

The lower part of the overlay is a representation of distinctive forked tail and ‘M’ shaped wings of the frigatebird. The frigatebird plays an important role in the art and cosmology of Solomon Islands and wider Pacific. As a hunter of the sea and sky, frigatebirds are seen to embody the qualities of a warrior as well as a guide to fishermen. Frigatebirds also herald the annual arrival of large schools of bonito fish, which play a vital role in the economic and ceremonial lives of Solomon Islanders. Above the frigatebird on this tema is a stylized rendition of leaping dolphins stacked in three pairs nose to nose.

Making Solomon Islands Breastplates

On Santa Cruz each element of a breastplate was produced by a separate craftsman. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The delicate overlay, known as mambu, was made from the richly mottled, translucent outer plates of the shell of the hawksbill turtle. Cut from the massive shell of the giant clam, the disk was laborious/ ground until perfectly smooth and round. 6 o adhesives or pegs were used in constructing the ornament. Rather, the two components were joined by a length of cordage, which was secured to the overlay and passed through a hole drilled in the center of the disk, extending to form a part of the cord from which the ornament was worn. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The imagery on the tema often appears abstract to Western observers. However, it is drawn from the natural world. The term tema also referred to the moon, which reportedly was symbolically represented by the round, white disk.8 The delicate geometric forms of the turtleshell overlays incorporated elegantly stylized images of frigate birds, dolphins, sharks, and bonito (a large food fish), all species important to Santa Cruz culture and religion.9 The lower portion of the overlay on this work depicts a frigate bird, reduced to the verge of abstraction : the bird 's forked tail appears at the base, as an inverted Y, and the larger M-shaped form surmounting it represents the characteristic configuration of the bird 's wings. Above the frigate bird three pairs of arching forms, which likely represent sharks or dolphins, as indicated by their triangular dorsal fins and forked tails, converge on the center line.

Masters of design, the artists of Santa Cruz were able to portray the birds and marine animals that surround them while simultaneously incorporating them into a spare geometric composition of the utmost elegance and refinement. In contrast to the concentric circles and lacelike radial patterns of the overlays of other Melanesian kap kap, the designs of the tema are bilaterally symmetrical.. A 1967 photograph shows a dancer from Mbanua village, on Ndende Island, in the Santa Cruz group, in full ceremonial regalia. His elaborate ensemble includes a large breastplate (tema) and a mother-of-pearl nose ornament (ne lo), as well as a dance skirt (napanesa) and feathered head plumes. According to Koch, the breastplates were second in importance only to the elaborate openwork nose ornaments of mother-of-pearl.

Solomon Islands Shell-Inlaid Shields

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Shell inlaid shields are among the most remarkable and enigmatic art forms from Solomon Islands. The surviving corpus of these works are remarkably consistent in their design and manufacture. All feature an inlaid central design of an elongated human figure surrounded by labyrinthine designs. Some, as in this example, also feature smaller faces positioned throughout the design. It appears that all of the known Solomon Islands shell inlaid shields were created in the first half of the nineteenth century, mostly likely on the islands of Guadalcanal and New Georgia and then traded to neighboring groups. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The shield has a woven base of wickerwork rattan, the shape and structure of which is common to many shields made throughout central and western Solomon Islands. The base woven shield has been overmodeled with a sticky, black paste extracted from parinarium nut before the design was inlaid from pieces of nautilus shell that create a luminous, shimmering effect.

The meaning behind the central figure of the shield is not fully understood. Woven fighting shields that don’t feature shell inlay would most often bear geometric designs, or renditions of frigatebirds, which are widely recognized as a symbol of the warrior in Solomon Islands. While such shields would have been used by warriors in active combat, the function of this shield was almost certainly ceremonial. Owning such a shield would have communicated a powerful statement on the wealth, status and identity of its bearer.

One shield (Grere'o) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of fiber, parinarium-nut paste, chambered-nautilus shell and pigment. Dating to the Early to mid-19th century, it is believed to originate from New Georgia or Guadalcanal Island and is 34 inches high, with a width of 10.5 inches and a depth of 1 inches (86.4 × 26.7 × 2.5 centimeters). Another from the same time and place is 33.4 inches (84.5 centimeters) tall.

Production and Uses of Shell-Inlaid Shields in the Solomon Islands

Eric Kjellgren wrote; The magnificent shell-inlaid shields of the Solomon Islands are at once spectacular and enigmatic objects. Only about twenty-five such shields exist, all of which appear to have been created in the first half of the nineteenth century. The majority consist of ordinary fighting shields made from coiled basketry that have been overmodeled with parinarium-nut paste (a milky substance that dries to a hard, blackish resin) and inset with hundreds of motherof-pearl inlays cut from chambered-nautilus shell, with the intervening areas painted red or black. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Elliptical basketry shields were employed widely by warriors in the western and central Solomons, and examples have been reported from the islands of Guadalcanal, Nggela (Florida), Santa Isabel, Vella Lavella, and New Georgia. These shields, however, appear to have been manufactured by peoples living in the interior of Guadalcanal and New Georgia and then traded to neighboring groups. The elaborate inlays, which required the cutting and setting of hundreds of individual pieces of shell, were probably executed by artists from Santa Isabel Island, where basketry shields were known as grere'o.

Santa Isabel artisans were specialists in shell inlay and in the nineteenth century worked both on their home island and, as war captives, on New Georgia. Although no two examples are precisely alike, the imagery and formal composition of the surviving inlaid basketry shields are remarkably similar, suggesting that they were created by a small group of specialists practicing a single, shared artistic tradition. The central image portrays a stylized anthropomorphic figure with an oval head, upraised arms, and an elongated, rectangular body. The nature and significance of the figure are unknown, although one scholar suggests that the figure represents a prominent warrior. Alternatively, like the canoe figureheads of the same region, it may depict a protective spirit. The central figure is flanked by two shallow crescents and stands atop a broad transverse b and in which, as here, small human faces at times appear, possibly alluding to the former practice of head-hunting. The upper and lower ends are adorned with elaborate labyrinthine designs that also often incorporate faces or stylized human figures.

The roles and functions of these ornate shields remain uncertain. The inlaid surfaces are extremely fragile, making it improbable that these elaborate and valuable shields were used in combat. Instead, they were almost certainly ceremonial objects carried, like the parade swords of Western military officers, as marks of social and martial distinction. In 1975 the prominent Solomon Islander Reverend Bill Gina stated that inlaid shields were ceremonial objects used by chiefs when "holding court." On these occasions the chief sat carrying an ax in his right hand, with the inlaid shield placed upright at his left side.

Of the roughly twenty-five shell-inlaid shields, about twenty are of coiled basketry and the remaining five are of bark. The basketry shields are constructed from coiled rattan, secured with tightly wrapped bands of oso vine. The great rarity of shell-inlaid shields in comparison with ordinary examples likewise suggests that they were prestige items, reserved for leaders or accomplished warriors, proudly carried as marks of their identity, wealth, and power.

Solomon Islands Shell Plaques

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The most complex clamshell objects were the large openwork plaques (barava) created in the western Solomons, notably on the islands of Choiseul, Vella Lavella, and New Georgia. With patience and care, artists drilled and sawed the dense, unyielding material to produce delicate openwork compositions, which often, as here, have an almost lacelike lightness. The imagery of barava varies. Some plaques, as here, have primarily geometric designs, but others include stylized human figures depicted seated or in dancing postures interspersed with forms resembling human faces with spiral-shaped eyes and mouths filled with minute teeth. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

One plaque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of Tridacna shell and 6.7 inches (17.5 centimeters) tall. The two spiral forms at the top of the present work possibly represent a pair of stylized eyes. Circular motifs, such as that seen on the base of this work, are common and likely represent shell rings, also made from the giant clam, which served as currency and prestige objects.

There is little historical information on the iconography or function of barava. Existing accounts indicate that the plaques were associated with burial places, placed on or within "skull huts" (small raised structures that housed the sku lls of prominent men or head-hunting victims) or on shrines or graves.

The role and placement of barava may have varied from island to island. In the earl y 1900s, Keri, a Solomon Island man from Vella Lavella, reported that the plaques served as the doors of skull huts, whereas lngava, a chief from New Georgia, stated that these objects never served as doors but were always placed inside the hut, among the skulls. and is uncertain whether barava were created specifically as funerary objects or were valuables or ceremonial objects that were later deposited at burial places as offerings. Plaques similar in size and appearance to the present 102 work at times appear as components of vovoso, powerful canoe charms consisting of assemblages of shell objects (plaques, rings, triangular objects also known as barava, and other items) attached to the top of a thin wood pole.

Before the cessation of warfare in the late nineteenth and earl twentieth centuries, vovoso were carried in the bows of war canoes during head-hunting raids to protect the crew and ensure a successful expedition. 9 When not in use, the vovoso were inserted into the ground near the skull huts at burial places. This suggests that, like the independent plaques, vovoso were closely associated with the dead, whose spirits, properly honored, ensured the well being of the living."

New Georgia Canoes and Their Figureheads

In Solomon Islands canoes were essential to transportation, fishing, and warfare. The canoe house was the ceremonial center of the village. Canoes themselves were often lavishly adorned with shell inlay, carved decoration, and protective charms.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Canoes in the region ranged from small vessels designed to carry a single individual to massive war canoes forty to fifty feet (12.2 to 15.2 meters) in length and capable of holding a crew of thirty-five.' Their tall, gracefully curving prows and sterns were inlaid with white shell and mother-of-pea rl and embellished with large cowrie shells and a variety of figural sculpture. The centerpiece of the prows of all large, and many smaller, canoes was a separately carved figurehead, which was known as nguzu nguzu, musu musu, or toto isu, depending on the island and culture of origin. Such figureheads have been reported from the islands of New Georgia, Choiseul, Santa Isabel, Vella Lavella, and Nggela (Florida). [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The nguzu nguzu was attached to the canoe prow at the waterline, so that it dipped in the sea as the vessel rode the ocean swells. It reportedly served as a supernatural guardian, protecting the crew during the hazardous voyage and ensuring the success of the expedition, whether for fishing or the pursuit of enemy heads. The most extensive historical account of the role of the figurehead is that of Lieutenant Boyle Somerville, a British naval officer, who described its use on the island of New Georgia 100 in 1893: "Low down on the prow above the water line the head and shoulders of a [spirit] (called Totoishu) is suspended; it is so placed as to dip in the water in front of the canoe. The function of this Totoishu is to keep off the Kesoko, or water fiends, which might otherwise cause the winds and waves to overset the canoe, so that they might fall on and devour its crew." Although he ascribes a similar protective function to the figurehead,

In the decades following Solomon Islands’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1978, the nguzunguzu has taken on an iconic role as a national and cultural symbol with artists continuing to draw on the canoe prow figures as inspiration. The historical association with headhunting is retained in these contemporary renderings as a connection to their ancestral power by descendants. Stories told today by contemporary makers indicate that a figure holding a head between its hands is a harbinger of war, while those holding birds come in peace.

New Georgia Canoe Figureheads

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In the western islands of New Georgia, Choiseul and Santa Isabel, large tomako (war canoes) would be adorned with distinctive figureheads. Known as nguzunguzu in the Roviana Lagoon area of New Georgia and toto isu in the Marovo Lagoon area on the opposite side of the island, canoe prow ornaments combine a human-like head with pronounced jaw, elongated head and often shell inlay designs that replicate facial paint or tattoo markings. The figures are carved without a body but with shoulders and arms either clutching a bird, human head or other object in its hands, or, as in this example, pressing its hands together below the chin. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

There are numerous stories of the origin of nguzunguzu as well as several explanations for their distinctive features. According to one origin story from Roviana Lagoon, the nguzunguzu is carved in the image of Tiola, a mythological ancestor who took the form of a dog. Tiola taught the people of Roviana to build the first tomako, and the likeness of his head and hands at the prow of the canoe served to fight enemies. Other accounts refer to the figure as an embodiment of Kesoko, a water spirit that acted as a pilot and protector of the vessel. Across the different stories of the origin of nguzunguzu, there is a strong connection between the figureheads and practices of ritual warfare and headhunting. The aim of headhunting was to acquire mana, or spiritual power, from the individual who was killed, which could in turn be channeled into the consecration of war canoes, and the overall protection and health of the village.

One Canoe Figurehead (Nguzu Nguzu, Musu Musu, or Toto Isu) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of wood, paint and shell. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it originates from the Western province of New Georgia Island in the Solomon Islands and is 5.25 inches high, with a width of 2.25 inches and a depth of 3.75 inches (13.3 × 5.7 × 9.5 centimeters). Another is from the western or central region of New Georgia and made of wood, chambered-nautilus shell, parinarium-nut paste and paint. It is five inches (14 centimeters) tall. Another is made from wood, chambered nautilus shell and paint and is 9.62 inches high, with a width of 3.62 x 5.5 inches (24.4 x 9.2 x 14 centimeters)

On the first figurehead mentioned above, nautilus shell inlay has been used to create the effect of facial paint and decorated ear plugs. The shimmer of white shell inlay against the stained black wood is a distinctive feature of Solomon Islands art, where the luminous quality of the shell creates visual efficacy and signifies ancestral presence. Body paint designs rendered in shell inlay could also be found in the decoration of canoes themselves. Both the human body and canoes are seen as vessels capable of harnessing ancestral power when properly adorned.

Nguzunguzu would be lashed at the base of the tall prow so that the figure skimmed the surface as the canoe cut through the water. Being tied to the prow rather than carved as an integral part of the canoe prow meant that nguzunguzu could be removed from vessels captured in warfare, or exchanged as high-status items and may have been used to adorn several canoes in their lifetimes.

First observed by European explorers in the mid-18th century, nguzu nguzu were widely employed until the late 1800s. Their use, intimately associated with warfare, head-hunting, and indigenous religious beliefs, gradually declined during the late 19th and early 20th centuries owing to the pacification efforts of the British colonial authorities and the influence of Christian missionaries, although some reportedly continued to be in use as late as 1929. The nguzu nguzu image, however, remains important to contemporary Solomon Islanders, and since the archipelago achieved independence from Great Britain in 1978, the distinctive figureheads have become a prominent symbol of national identity, appearing on the nation's currency.'

Imagery in New Georgia Canoe Figureheads

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Geoffrey Beti, a Solomon Islander writing in the 1970s, identified the prow image itself with Kesoko : "The nguzunguzu in front of a tomoko (warcanoe) was an image of Kesoko as he kept a constant watch without ever closing his eyes. In this way Kesoko was believed to have functioned as a pilot of the great tomoko through unknown waters, passages, reefs, and of course to look out for enemies to see that none escaped." [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Although the exact identity of the being, or beings, portrayed in the figureheads is uncertain, the conical heads of the images (which often have winglike projections or are surmounted, as here, by a caplike form representing the hair), as well as their strongly prognathous jaws, were reportedly attributes of spirits. The figureheads typically depict a partial human figure consisting, as here, of an enlarged head with smaller shoulders and arms extended forward, with the hands raised to the chin or, in rare instances, clasping a smaller head or bird." The present work, which is relatively modest in scale, may have adorned a small canoe. Rendered with great elegance and refinement, the facial features are embellished with lustrous mother-of-pearl in lays cut from chambered-nautilus shell.

Formed of Z-shaped elements known as asepaleo or nae paleo, the delicate lines that surround the eyes and mark the jawline replicate the distinctive face-paint patterns worn by men on important occasions. Like many nguzu nguzu, the figure is shown with circular ear ornaments, inserted through large holes in the artificially elongated earlobes. Such ornaments were worn by both sexes, although larger examples, such as those shown here, were worn by men. Waite reports that among the one hundred examples that she examined, dating from the late eighteenth century to 1940, only 12 examples held heads in their hands and only 10 held birds. A few examples portray complete human figures.

A 2005 photograph shows a group of war canoes on Vella Lave/la Island, ca. 1922. The nguzu nguzu (figurehead) of the canoe in the foreground is visible at the lower left. The faces of the warriors are painted with patterns similar to those depicted in the mother-of-pearl inlays on the faces of the figurehead images. The men are armed with battle-axes and basketry shields.

Solomon Islands Fishnet Float

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Fishing is an essential element of daily life for all coastal peoples in the Solomon Islands, and both physical effort and supernatural intervention are needed to ensure an abundant catch. The Solomon Islanders employ a variety of fishing techniques, including hook and line, small dip nets, and large communal nets, which require substantial numbers of people to operate. Communal-net fishing is a male activity that was, and in some instances remains, sur101 172 I rounded by ritual observances designed to ensure the goodwill of spirits who had the power to provide, or withhold, the fish the community sought. Large fishnets and their accoutrements belonged to specific individuals, usually leading men within the community. The final catch, however, was divided among the participants.[Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a float for a large fishing net. Produced in the western Solomon Islands, possibly New Georgia Island, in the 19th-early 20th century, it is made of wood and paint and 9.4 inches (21.3 centimeters) wide. Carved from a lightweight wood painted a deep black, it would have been one of a series of floats that were threaded onto the upper margin of a large fishing net through holes in their bases. When the net was set, the floats bobbed on the surface of the water, holding up the top of the net and keeping it open (stone sinkers, attached to the lower margin, performed a complementary function). Most fishnet floats were undecorated, but finely carved examples, depicting birds, fish, and su pernatu ra I beings, were created in a number of areas in the archipelago.

Net fishing on New Georgia was accompanied by elaborate ceremonial observances and restrictions. Before setting out, the participants went to the community fishing shrine, where chants were recited to propitiate the spirits. The fishnet floats were rubbed with the rinds of eru and niniru (two types of seaweed) whose magical properties ensured that many fish would swim into the net. Shell rings (important ceremonial valuables) were presented by the members of the fishing party to the owner of the net, who placed them on the shrine as offerings to the spirits. During the expedition the leader or net owner was referred to as the "widow of the net" and had to restrict his personal adornment, wearing garments of undyed white bark cloth and forgoing the bright white face paint worn by men. 3 Although more intimate in scale, the present work shows striking similarities to the larger canoe figureheads (nguzu nguzu) of the western Solomons. The figure, with its enlarged head, markedly prognathous jaw, flexed arms, and hands clasped just beneath the chin, is essentially a miniature version of a nguzu nguzu image. In addition, both the float and the figurehead exhibit the distinctive caplike coiffure and large round ear ornaments worn by men in the western Solomons. Like the nguzu nguzu, the float figure possibly depicts a powerful spirit.

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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