Varilaku: Pacific arts from the Solomon Islands is the first major exhibition in Australia bringing together the finest traditional arts from the Solomons.
The Solomon Islands have an incredible history of warfare and art with early European accounts, noting the artistic attention given to the decoration on weapons and raiding canoes.
The nation of the Solomon Islands consists of a chain of mountainous islands that stretch in a south-easterly direction from its northern tip near Papua New Guinea towards Vanuatu in the south. At first glance the Solomon Islands have a long history of conflict. Over the past 200 years these conflicts have ranged from the seafaring expeditions associated with head-hunting practices to encounters with external influences of the labour recruitment era, naval might and conflict on a spiritual level through the advent of Christianity.
Head-hunting was both a social and religious practice, the goal being the acquisition of heads to affirm a warrior's own standing within his community. A head would be cleaned and over-modelled with a thick paste from a certain nut. The nut ‘putty’ hardened slowly giving artists time to sculpt features into a likeness of the deceased. Such ‘trophy’ heads, interestingly enough, depict men looking at their best: hair styles of fibre, pierced elongated earlobes and even the lines of delicate shell inlay echo the facial paint designs young men wore daily.
The communities of the Western Solomon Islands spent a great part of their time building special canoes, making alliances, planning raids, observing rituals and organising celebratory events around head-hunting.
Compared to women in the same communities, men during the 19th century went to great lengths to decorate themselves and more than once were described by Western visitors as ‘dandies’. The preoccupation of male vanity may initially seem at odds with the ultimate goal of bloodshed to procure trophy heads of the vanquished, perhaps there are underlying connections between the outward image a warrior wished to project, success and reputation in warfare. Even the raiding canoes were created with a distinct aesthetic, small carved figureheads were placed near the waterline of the war canoe looking outwards. Commonly called nguzu nguzu they are miniature masterpieces of reduction of the human form. Each prow figurehead has prognathic features that jut forward and a piercing gaze intended to intimidate the spirits of the seas and magically seek out the warrior’s quarry.
The art of the Solomon Islands from the late 19th century and early 20th century includes compelling works in fibre, stone, giant clam shell, turtle shell and wood. There are intriguing abstractions of the human form found in the work selected from the northern islands of Buka, Bougainville and the Shortland Islands. Ancestral figures from Buka display bulbous heads atop bodies of concise angular symmetry which serve to underline different sculptural approaches when compared to the Urar of Bougainville, whose forms follow the natural twisting inclinations of mangrove wood. In the South Eastern Solomon Islands of Owaraha (Santa Ana) Ulawa and Makira (San Cristobal) the sculptural arts are more reliant upon pure form. Here, the intricately cut and positioned inlay of iridescent sections of nautilus shell common to art from the central Solomon Islands becomes larger and is applied across entire surfaces. Artists in this area seemed to eschew surface embellishments and opted for the power of sheer clean plains as in the artist Tigoana’s Adaro spirit figure and the Centre post from a ceremonial house. Tigoana is the only named artist within the exhibition and the Adaro spirit figure is one of the later works exhibited. It depicts a mischievous, perhaps promiscuous, winged sea spirit with dolphin for feet. Adaro have control over the air and sea and were believed to travel via rainbows. This work is from the last generation of sculpture made for kastom reasons in the mid 20th century prior to widespread conversions to Christianity.
In the past decade, with the assistance of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the Solomon Islands have established peace after a civil war that affected parts of the nation. Some 50 years earlier, in the 20th century, the Islands endured warfare on a massive scale during World War II. Tens of thousands of foreign troops with ships and planes brought different goods, technologies and customs that markedly affected the local communities. Aspects of traditional culture, known as kastom, were abandoned or discouraged through foreign influence both direct and indirect.
Before World War II there was a period of peace in the Solomon Islands beginning with the 1893 establishment of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Prior to this era, particularly in the Western Solomon Islands, the cultural practice of head-hunting aggressively expanded through the introduction of firearms from traders beginning in the 1860s and 1870s. Within this period of expansive indigenous warfare and fledgling Western involvement, missionaries struggled to spread the word of Christianity and the protectorate administration established its authority through the shock and awe tactics of punitive action.
It is this era of history for the Solomon Islands—distinguished by the great changes bought about by missionary influence on Kastom practices in the 1890s to the coming of Japanese and American military powers in the 1940s—that the works are drawn from. Each work was selected from Australian collections: Queensland Museum, Australian Museum, Museum Victoria, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, as well as less well-known collections such as that of the remarkable South Sea Islands Museum. Through Australia’s long relationship with the Solomon Islands a surprising number of cultural arts have found their way into our museums.
All of these works are the creations of artists who in most cases remain unknown. Indeed, which exact village or community an object originated from is often lost to us due to the nature of acquisition through trade and barter, collected by missionaries as examples of heathen idolatry, or simply souvenired as curiosities by early travellers. Over time these stunning sculptures and adornments have changed hands finding their way into museum and art gallery storerooms or private collections.
Arts from the Solomon Islands have not received the attention they deserve here in Australia, yet we hold some of the greatest reserves of these arts in the world. Here at the National Gallery of Australia this is but one opportunity to let some of these arts shine.