Solomon Islands – Re-enchantment and the Colonial Shadow Exhibition
Dr. Diana Young, Director, University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, assembled the following notes on some of the more fascinating objects that are in the exhibition. All come from the museum founder, Dr L. P. Winterbotham’s collection, made mainly during the 1940s and 1950s. The details below rely heavily on the knowledge of the collaborative working group for the exhibition and research by UQAM staff both in other collections and in published literature.
The first one is mysterious; a sculpture of an adolescent girl carrying a bowl or a basket.
She was discovered in the collection early on in this research project when we were searching for Solomon items that might not have been accessioned as such. The Museum catalogue held little information about her, the only clue being the all too frequent heart sinker, ‘Melanesia unspecified’.
She is carved from one log with a long patterned support to her braced pose. Red bands are indented below her knees and on her wrists suggesting festival wear. The pearl shell inlaid around the rim of the container and her hair style at the back of her head contrasts against the blackened soft wood. But what makes her so arresting are her eyes, which are made of bright blue beads overlaid with an inset of thin glass giving her an uncanny stare. Her distinctive frigate bird tattooing is similar to the segesege or unpigmented facial tattooing unique to Santa Ana and Santa Catalina, which suggest an eastern Solomons style[i].
To keep her company in the gallery Queensland Museum kindly loaned two pieces of blue tapa said to be dyed with wild indigo, that were the speciality of Santa Isabel women. When it materialized in glass beads and cloth, blue seems to have become an important colour in Solomons.
The UQ collection has only two animal sculptures from Solomon Islands, both collected in the late 19th century by the Labour Trade government agent, Sydney Mercer Smith. This one in the exhibition may represents a collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) or a male frigate bird. His resting wings are defined by a single row of nautilus shell, cut into an X shape that may be a stylised frigate bird design. Old collection photographs and the small holes on its belly tell us that the bird once had legs. Was it a canoe post ornament (see the photo of blue ‘kio-kio’ kingfisher prow ornament in Richards 2012; 117) sitting atop the stern post to indicate wind direction, though he seems in too good a condition to have been used for that for long. Or perhaps it was made to be traded or was even commissioned by Mercer Smith as animal carvings are today in Marovo.
This prow head, with its fierce, pointed teeth, almost certainly came from a head hunting canoe with the small human head held beneath its face. Although it has lost the outer part of its ears miraculously it still has a piece of red trade cloth in its nostrils. Its hair is made from what seems to be a piece of coral. Its whole face is indented with tattoo patterns; the lime that provides contrast has gone from the upper portions. Amongst these designs are the ‘M’ shapes of flying frigate birds.
Hviding notes that large eyes, ears and noses, which are based on that of a dog, are central elements of nguzunguzu, providing heightened sensory capability to detect sea spirits[ii]. As a crucial element of the Western Solomons war canoe their constant outward gaze ensured safe passage from malevolent sea spirits like keseko[iii] and there is a contemporary carving of kesoko in the show by Milton Molocka of Maravo lagoon.
In Re-enchantment and the colonial shadow this work is part of the ‘heads and tales’ narrative showing contemporary nguzunguzu, a term now commonly applied throughout Solomon Islands. Designed as detachable prow heads they were kept in the canoe house and lashed to the canoe for raids. The holes at the back of this nguzunguzu and the wear indicates that it was used.
The next two things are displayed in a narrative based on the Queensland Labour trade and Malaita.
Human tooth necklaces are uncommonly found in museum collections. This one, according to David Akin[iv] is likely to be from Kwaio, and is made up of human teeth collected from killings. According to the missionary and ethnographer, W. G. Ivens, necklaces of human teeth from dead relatives were worn by the people of Pwaloto of Little Mala, South Malaita[v]
Almost a quarter of the UQ Solomon Island collection is body wear. A third are recorded as from Malaita which also provided the highest volume of labourers in the Queensland Labour Trade, as Clive Moore notes. In this exhibition Malaitan men’s body wear is displayed among Malaitan clubs, objects that were also charged with spiritual significance.
This men’s cane belt called ueariarai in Kwaio was another collection store ‘discovery’ during research. David Akin provided the knowledgeable details about it[vi]. Made of long strips of cane decorated with red and yellow fibre work designs, the strips of smaller cane are patterned using a resist-dye technique where pieces of leaf are tied onto the strips before boiling in dye. The lozenge-shaped design is called lodo`efuu in Kwaio[vii]. Worn around the waist they were supposed to kill hunger pangs while men were hunting a bounty victim and forbidden to eat due to their ancestrally charged state.
This belt was collected by Sir Samuel Griffith. Although it is likely he never went visited the Islands he was a man likely to receive high quality gifts in his jobs as Queensland Premier from 1883-88 and 1890-93, Chief Justice of Queensland (1893-1902) and Australia (1903-19). He took a close interest in the Queensland labour trade and legislated to close it in 1885, then was forced to back down in 1892 due to an economic crisis[viii].
The wall hung with axes has been popular with visitors to the show. Some axes have inlaid pearl shell handles but this unusual bell shaped trade axe has been spliced into a black palm wood dance paddle.
The exhibition is open until the end of June 2017. See http://www.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/index.html?page=235013&pid=185401 for more details.
Thanks to Camilla Hardjo who was curatorial assistant for this exhibition research project.[i] Guppy 1887:132, Ivens 1927:24 and Mead 1973:30-31. [ii] E. Hviding 2014b; 124. [iii] E. Hviding 2014a;111. [iv] David Akin Pers comm., 2013, see UQAM on line catalogue notes for this item. [v] Ivens 1927; 213. [vi] D Akin 2016, pers. comm., 1 April; Burt et al 2009, p. 144. [vii] D Akin 2016, pers. comm., 1 April [viii] Clive Moore pers comm., and forthcoming in the exhibition catalogue
Burt, B, Akin, D & Kwa`ioloa, M 2009, Body ornaments of Malaita, Solomon Islands, University of Hawai`i Press, Honolulu.
Guppy, HB 1887, Solomon Islands and their natives, S. Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co., London.
Hviding, E 2014a, ‘War canoes of the western Solomons’, in Burt, B & Bolton, L (eds.), The things we value: culture and history in Solomon Islands, Sean Kingston Publishing, Canon Pyon, England, pp. 103-16.
Hviding, E 2014b, ‘The lives of nguzunguzu: canoe prow figureheads from the western Solomon Islands’, in Mélandri M & Revolon S (eds.), L’éclat des Ombres: L’art en noir et blanc des iles Salomon, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, pp. 124-39.
Ivens, WG 1927, Melanesians of the south-east Solomon Islands, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, London.
Mead, S 1973, Material culture and art in the Star Harbour region, eastern Solomon Islands, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.
Richards, R 2012, Head hunters black and white: three collectors in the western Solomon Islands 1893-1914, Paremata Press, Wellington,