Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Thursday, June 07, 2007


Artists from the Solomon Island group produced some of the finest & most diverse human 3D figures of all the ethnographic arts – from the erotic owl head pregnant female figures of Rennell Is. to the Buka & Bougainville formal family portrait groups & the highly stylized Nguzu head figures which appeared on all manner of items from the sacred/secret/dangerous to the every day.

Solomon Island portrait figures that are realist and dynamic appear to be a far less common genre than the more well known rigid formalized & stylized portrait statues from Buka & Bougainville. It is possible they may have served a very different social & ritual role in the Solomon Islands than the more commonly known forms of sculpture.

These two examples, the Hooper “Dancing Girl” (Cat No.1096) and the other from the Palmer collection, share a number of striking similarities, apart from both girls having been the object of my affection for a very long time. Both are precisely the same scale (13 3/4 ins. 35 cm.) and have articulated arms pinned with wood pegs .Although the arms can move, they are keyed to the body contours and only properly sit in one position. As articulation usually refers to movement perhaps these are composite structures where the attached limbs free the sculptor from the constraints of the cylindrical form imposed by small tree trunks as raw material. Each is decorated with traditional designs common to Solomon Island body painting. They share a tangible dynamism of balance & movement. Each presents a powerful but subtle individual presence. Both are circa 1870. Phelps dates collection the of Hooper piece to last quarter of the 19th century (Hooper acquired in 1935). Provenance is possibly Vella Lavella Island.

As realistic portrait figures, both are most certainly recognizable individual female members of the family/clan, village & time. Both share the same period & perhaps even the same hand of a senior Cult Lodge master carver/sculptor. The technical treatment of the head/face & particularly the breast area is remarkably consistent in both pieces, leading irresistibly to the tantalizing conclusion which allows the possibly that perhaps the one artist hand was involved in their creation. The benchmark work of Harry Beran on Mutuaga which links masterpieces & virtuosity with an identified individual Master Artist shows how anonymity of a work, divorced from the associated information the Artist & Social / Cultural context , can seriously devalue the integrity & appreciation of any artefact.

In Fred McCarthy’s 1951 paper, (Aust Museum Mag Vol X, No.5. Human sculptures of the Solomon Islands) there is an illustration & discussion of a fabulous life size dynamic portrait sculpture figure of a girl from Rubiana (Roviana?) New Georgia (a short canoe ride from Vella Lavella). She shares many of the features ascribed to these two smaller examples. Her arm position is that of a dancing girl & appears to be articulated. But why is she sitting down like a wallflower? He particularly appreciates & comments on the” frankness and realism as marked features in the execution…. for nothing is eschewed by the craftsman”.

Also he observes that the facial features of each figure cover the range of expression to be expected by young novices initiates at their puberty rites; expectancy, fear, misery, secrecy and suspicion of youth.

This paper discusses the training of the master specialist carvers by their own fathers or mothers brothers & their payment for their figure work in porpoise teeth currency. Within the Northern Solomon’s matrilineal clans & family lineage groups of mothers relatives lie the control of this Art production and it’s social function .McCarthy details the specific function of one type of figure carving of a young girl, kaisa, which ensures at marriage that the wife will conceive a first born girl to establish within the wife’s lineage the ownership of property & the relationships of children resulting from the union. This figure is stored in the Cult house of the husband’s clan to be ritually destroyed when the girl child grows up. The sculpture becomes of such power that if a woman sights this figure the child would die.

McCarthy’s discussion of the social & ritual context in which these figures were produced may shed some light on the paucity of representation of dynamic portrait pieces in major collections. Made for the family of the girl during her puberty ceremonies, they were intended to be ritually destroyed by burning when the daughter represented became married.

The production and display/use of these very dynamic articulated portrait figures would have been no light matter. Only a very limited number of Cult Lodge members as specialist sculptors would have been authorized to make these figures. As in other Cult Lodge societies the responsibility to produce potent ritual paraphernalia may have fallen to one senior member of each generation to make these figures with other senior custodians/stewards & managers assisting & involved in the ceremonial presentation. The potential for supernatural sanctions involving the misuse of any human figures, particularly those with a recognizable countenance & articulated arms would have been a grave consideration (personal com Colin Jack Hinton). This is consistent with reports of the serious regard in which other Solomon figures & spirit figures Nugzu Nugzu & Adaro Sea Spirits (see Attenborough) were held. Within the context of their ceremonial role in the rites of passage relating to human puberty, and therefore group procreation, use & exposure of these figures would have been closely guarded & regulated. Their ritual destruction at the close of ceremony is testament to their perceived potency & multi layered ceremonial but essentially non secular nature of this art form.

The other more rigid formal portrait Solomon statues & family groups with animals (dogs, pigs) find many parallels in art from of other cultures & times. In the beautiful portrait figures of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, or the ancient the Sumerian & New Kingdom portrait figures, there are similar treatments (with absolutely no suggestion of diffusionism) of the human figure as a stiff stylized form. Some of the great collectors here (Stan Moriaty & Spike Milligan) sought examples of the stiff Solomon Island sculptures because of these formal similarities with these other traditions. At the turn of the century two great dancers, Sarah Bernhardt & Isadora Duncan, had more static formal Solomon figures in their collections. It is a given that, as legendary free sprits, they would have swapped for a dynamic dancing portrait figure but may never have seen one. Interestingly enough Elsa Lanchester described Isadora Duncan as plump & handsome – not unlike some of the Solomon ideal beauty examples.

These alive & vital dynamic realistic Solomon portrait figures are however unique to this region & time. At least up until Degas. The Indian bronze dance figure have this dynamism however are unlikely to be portraits. The Solomon figures represent a superbly refined artistic movement dedicated to the joyful expression of life, society & ceremony. In spite of what is often perceived as an inflexible social/cultural structure there is more than a hint of a politically independent individual within each work.

For me these Solomon Island dancing girls continue to dance sublimely, alone but not unloved nor unappreciated or forgotten.

Arthur Beau Palmer
7th March 2007
Beran,Harry. 1996. Mutuaga .A Nineteen- Century Master Carver.Wollongong. Wollongong University Press.

McCarthy,Fred. 1951. The Human Sculptures of the Solomon Islands. The Australian Museum Magazine.Vol.X,No.5. 139-143. Sydney NSW.

Phelps,Steven. 1976. Art & Artifacts of the Pacific,Africa and the Americas. The James Hooper Collection. London. Hutchionson Christies.


  • Great article, and congratulations on the fine pieces sold in the recent Sydney auction. What other offerings from your old collection can we expect to see on your web? Well done! David A

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 08, 2007 5:35 PM  

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