At the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum. Review by Krisztina Turza.
Since I missed the opening of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum’s recent exhibition on the Solomon Islands as I was travelling in Europe, I was eager to pay a visit on my return in September. It is not a common occurrence that an exhibition is solely dedicated to the arts of the Solomon Islands. As Diana Young, Director of the UQ Anthropology Museum, mentions in her exhibition summary, this is ‘only the second exhibition in Australia devoted to Solomon Islands in recent years, although Honiara, the modern capital of Solomon Islands is closer to Brisbane than Auckland’.
The exhibition was opened on 22 August 2016 and will be on until June 2017, displaying antique as well as contemporary works from its Solomon Islands collection of some 28,000 items, with the aim to ‘return the Solomon collection to an enchanted state, one that is alive with new possibilities for shaping the present and the future’.
The exhibition’s cornerstones are the head-hunting canoes (and some contemporary sculptures by George Borgus; Aldio Pita; Leuten Watts-Hila; Milton Moloka; Gaspar Terrence and Ralph Ako, and stories from Leuten Watts-Hila and Eutucus Ngonga, all of whom are from villages in Marovo Lagoon in the New Georgia Islands group), shells, pearls and beads, batons (hauanoreereo in Are’are’ language and fou`atoleeleo in Kwaio language) and clubs (large Alofolos). The show also features photographs assembled by the Queensland labour trader, Douglas Rannie, with hand written captions from his manuscript in the UQ collection. It was due to the Queensland Labour Trade, between 1870 and 1911, that there are so many Solomon Islands artefacts in Brisbane. Almost 25,000 Solomon Islands labourers came to work on sugar plantations in Northern Queensland, a significant number in comparison to the islands’ population of 150,000 at that time.
Items that caught my eyes were the pair of beautifully carved statutes (used as food containers), the statute with Reckitt blue bead eyes (which you would not automatically pick up on, but luckily a helpful gallery staff pointed at them with a torch), the marvellous gnuzugnuzu heads also known as totu isu canoe prow ornaments (toto isu in Marovo language literally means ‘big nose’). The gnuzugnuzu illustrated was collected between 1893 and 1900 and is unusual in the sense that it has a head of woollen hari. The wide staring eyes of the gnuzugnuzu were to keep watch and ward off the malevolent sea spirits like kesoko, whilst the nose is based on that of a dog.
There are great model canoes and bowls on display, depicting bonito fish, frigate birds with mother of pearl shell inlays, steel axes (kilakila), batons and clubs, as a reminder of the turbulent past. The collection’s fish hooks with turtle shell barb bounds were beautifully arranged with glimpses of the miniature gnuzugnuzu faces carved on them.
Visitors could admire a number of kapkaps (clam shell discs with turtle shell openwork held together at centre with plant fibre string) and a gorgeous barava (believed to be ritually broken atop burial sites and cut from solid giant clam shell) as well as a nicely preserved feather money (pride price). There are six Malaita Island combs on display, the teeth of which are made from the tree fern called ona (Cyathea lunulata). Shell and woven glass beads ornaments with flying fox, dolphin, dog and human teeth are also exhibited.
The shell rings and armlets on display are good examples of the western islands arm ornaments that were worn as pendants, indicating a higher social status. Different types of shell rings were used for trade ranging from peace agreements to standard market purchases all the way to being used as offerings to ancestors and spirits. Then there was the selection of dance sticks (matanimao) reflecting the daily activities of the people. The men’s dance clubs on display were also very old, collected between 1893 and 1900. As I learned from the exhibition materials, these bwa or ba (meaning stick in Natugu language or pwiwu in Natugu language which refer to the coconut inflorescence) were used during the napa dances, which were directly connected to the deities or spirits (dukna). Important to the performance is the sound as it is said to be a reminder of the sound when two fighting cocks hit each other.
An interesting aspect of this region, as quoted from David Akin on one of the exhibition labels, is that in the late 19th century, European labour recruiters, colonial officers and missionaries were eager to collect Solomon Islands items as ‘curiosities’ and the Islanders were also keen to barter them. Clubs, in particular, were popular trade items as they perfectly conveyed the stereotype attitudes held by white Australians of the ‘savages’. However, by the 1910’s the Solomon art market had declined and only reawakened during WWII, when thousands of soldiers sought souvenirs, especially clubs, that could fit in their suitcases (early ‘airport art’) and little resemble those that were originally used by the Islanders. Today, Honiara’s tourist shops offer clubs, many of inferior woods with shell inlay, whilst old style clubs are still currently being made in rural communities on Malalita as some young men prefer to carry these clubs so as to ‘look good’.
Images this page courtesy Krisztina Turza.