COLLECTING ART IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
Updated: Sep 8
There is a magical place in the Solomon Islands called the Marovo Lagoon, hidden away in the Western Province, the land of betel nut, crocodiles and head-hunters. Throughout our travels we have never found another place that is as beautiful and peaceful, with such loving and kind people.
They live a traditional life in small villages as they did centuries ago, virtually untouched by the Westernized world. Many are master carvers, their skills passed down to them by their ancestors. They use only hand tools to create the bowls and sculptures and use sandpaper and polish for the fine finish. They have no templates for their designs. They carve what they see in their minds and what their hands feel as they carve.
The country of the Solomon Islands is situated in the Pacific Ocean south of the equator, east of Papua New Guinea, and north of Australia and New Zealand, and is made up of over 900 islands. The people are Melanesian and, in many places, still live in the traditional way, with each village having a customary chief. There are 87 local dialects and languages, but the official language is Solomon Island Pijin, and many people speak English.
These islands got their name as a result of mystery, legend and avarice. The Old Testament tells us about King Solomon of Israel who accumulated over 500 tons of pure gold from an unknown source. Later, in the 1500’s rumors circulated in Peru that the King of the Incas, Tupac Yupanqui, had taken a sea journey and returned with large quantities of gold. In 1567, a 25-year-old Alvares Mendana, a Spanish navigator, set sail to find the source of this gold. He ended up in these islands, and, although gold was never found, the name Solomon remained.
During World War II these islands were the setting for many fierce sea clashes between the Japanese and the Allied forces. The most notorious event, though certainly not the most significant, was the story of Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy. His patrol torpedo boat PT 109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. His boat was sunk, and he and his crew barely survived, spending seven days trying to reach safety. They finally reached the US base in Rendova after swimming through treacherous waters, searching for food and fresh water on several deserted islands and hiding from Japanese fire.
THE ARTISTS OF THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
The people are outgoing, easygoing, and loveable. Every village welcomed us with extraordinary enthusiasm and warmth. All of our encounters were delightful, with mutual respect and curiosity the main ingredients. The people live without electricity. They grow and gather their own fruits and vegetables, fish by canoe, and cook over wood fires.
To earn money for the fees to send their children to school, the men carry on their traditional wood carving skills. The woods used are ebony, kerosene wood, Solomon rosewood and coconut. The inlay is mother of pearl, cut with a hand saw and files.
All you see was personally collected by us. By purchasing something from our gallery you will help these Pacific Islanders hold on to their culture and traditions and help pay the school fees to educate their children.
Our initial intentions were merely to participate in the economy, exchanging cash the locals needed for works of art they had painstakingly created. On our initial visit, we ended up with over 100 very fine carvings: bowls, 'spirits', fish, turtles, statues, walking sticks and so on. It seemed to be such a wonderful way to engage in the local economy.
DAILY LIFE AND THE SPIRIT WORLD
Kevin Conru, an avid collector and the author of Solomon Islands Art – the Conru Collection, has said that “Nowhere else in Melanesia are the land and the sea, the people and their culture so intertwined”. This society, in ancient days, dwelled in a mystical way of life, seeking guidance and protection from the forces of nature by imploring the intervention of the spirit world. Some spirits were malevolent, others benevolent, others merely capricious. The people focused on interpreting and manipulating the will of these spirit beings.
The whole structure of the religious superstition was based on the belief that every person became an “urar“ at death. These were ancestral spirits, referred to as “tindalos” in some areas, ”akaros” or “akalos” in other areas. If the person who died was a ‘great man’, a stylized head was carved as a focal point for reverence and worship.
Large numbers of tindalos were classified into groups who exerted power in different spheres. There were war tindalos (called keramo), agriculture tindalos, sea tindalos (called bagea, which meant shark) and fishing tindalos. Tindalos called Luvaolu were active in amorous relations.
The sea itself was the home of many spirits, which were called "akalo ni matawa". A benevolent sea spirit, Kesoko, had a man's body but his mouth was like the beak of a frigate bird (which is known to harass other birds until they drop or regurgitate their recently captured food, which the frigate bird snatches in midair.) Kesoko was closely tied to spearfishing and net-fishing.
Adaros were wild spirits who traveled on rainbows and slid up and down on them. Said to arise from the wicked part of a person’s spirit, they were capable of shooting people using fish as arrows. Described as a man with gills behind his ears, fish fins for feet, and a horn like a shark’s dorsal fin, he either had a sawfish-like spear growing out of his head, or his entire head was a fish.
Snake myths abound throughout many eras and cultures, usually associated with lies, evil and temptation. In the Solomon Islands, the mythical snake-man tried to snatch young children from their families. And crocodiles and sharks were capable of swallowing whole canoes.
The Nguzu Nguzu (noozu noozu) were figureheads attached to the prows of canoes at the water line, usually representing an elongated anthropomorphic head, an upper torso and arms holding a bird. Their function, as recorded by Lieutenant Boyle Somerville in 1897 was to ‘keep off the water fiends which might otherwise cause the winds and waves to upset the canoe, so that they might fall on and devour its crew”. Their eyes were designed to watch for these sea devils and to ward them off. A sinker was dangled below to spin in the water and frighten them away.
Up until the end of the 19th century, these figureheads (also called musu musu or toto isu) sometimes held a smaller head, signifying that this was a war canoe on a head-hunting raid. Headhunting raids reportedly had several motivations. A head was taken on the occasion of launching a new canoe or the completion of a new canoe house. Marriages and yam harvest celebrations also required the taking of a head. Revenge, a retaliation for previous raids on one’s own village was a just cause. It is likely that the heads were thought to contain a kind of “mana” which had the power to ward off evil.
BOWLS AND SCULPTURES
The decorative carvings and artwork of the Solomon Islands being produced today are replications of the traditional cultural items such as nguzu nguzus. The carvers are also producing items for “Western” taste – elegant bowls and detailed sculptures of marine life.
The artists are surrounded by the sea and have a great reverence for the creatures who glide silently beneath the surface. In their carvings they capture the graceful and sinuous line of the animals like the sharks, dolphins, and octopus.
The bowls are carved with hand tools taking on elegant shapes – ovals and ellipses, even shapes resembling seashells. Two of our bowls are actually carved as octopuses, and several have elaborately carved lids.
All are embellished with mother-of-pearl inlay, bits of shell painstakingly cut into tiny pieces and placed in a carved channel. The pieces are secured with custom putty, a paste made from the fruit if the Parinarium tree (Atuna racemosa).
These bowls can be displayed as works of art in their own right, or used for fruit, salad (without dressing), or filled with decorative objects, as you wish.
RELICS – BARAVA – ORNATE OPENWORK PLAQUES
In ancient days,” barava” were created to represent a tribe, its identity, and its land. They were carved from fossilized giant clam shell.
The fossilized shells used for the barava were found in the hills of islands that were formerly reefs. Volcanic activity eons ago thrust the reefs high up out of the water. Thus, barava are relics in several ways – the clam shells have been fossilized, and the artform is now extinct. No one has ever witnessed or heard about their production, a significant indication of relative age.
RELICS – BAKIHA – CLAM SHELL MONEY
These large rings were produced using the same methods as for the Barava. The carvers would use small hand drills, aerial roots coated with sand and sharkskin. The rings are still being used today in the Solomon Islands, particularly when a marriage is being arranged. Chiefs used to wear these rings as chest ornaments, usually decorated with fiber and smaller shells and beads.
RELICS – TEVAU – RED FEATHER MONEY
Our first encounter with this art form was in 2004, during our first landfall in the Solomon Islands at Graciosa Bay, Ndende Island, Santa Cruz Group. We were offered a pair of sticks with feathers attached, called “noaipu”, which are hair ornaments worn during dances. Years later we would acquire the large red feather money coil, which we have mounted and framed.
Three hereditary work specialists produced each belt. One obtained the feathers; another made the little feather-covered wooden plaques and a third assembled the plaques on the belt. A single coil could take years to complete. Before contact with European explorers and traders, Pacific Islanders had no source of metal and thus no coinage. Value comes from rarity. The rarity of these red feathers, along with the extensive labor involved in creating the coils, manifested their value as money.
A “kapkap” is a personal adornment article worn on the forehead. A round flat disc is covered with an intricate carving made from turtle shell.
Another type of adornment is called a “tema”. It was usually worn as a chest ornament and it depicts a frigate bird and bonito fish.
One of our oldest pieces in this collection is an ancient mortar and pestle, called a “kato”. The mortar is carved from a dense rainforest hardwood and the pestle is carved from a stone from a particular river in Gatokae Island.
IN TOUCH WITH ANOTHER WORLD – THE ALLURE OF OCEANIC ART
Our motto is “Bringing culture to your world”. Please consider incorporating into your living space a piece of artwork, created by an artist whose culture embraces both the seen and the unseen, a piece that offers you a new perspective on the mystical nature of man and the world we live in.
To view our authentic oceanic pieces, please visit our online store, Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Art.
You can read about our cruising in the Pacific if you would like. Go to TALK STORY and the BLOG titled THE FIREBIRD VOYAGE.