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ON DISPLAY
LVL 1

Pacific Arts
Melanesia gallery

See nearby items (accurate to +/- 12 hrs)
Roviana people Western, Solomon Islands, New Georgia Group, Roviana (New Georgia Island)
Portrait bust of a young man 1870 - 1900 Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia Group, Western Province, Solomon Islands
sculptures, ethnographic objects, wood, paint, shell, hair
Technique: wood, paint, shell, hair
33.0 h x 26.0 w x 22.0 d cm
Purchased 2007
Accession No: NGA 2007.431

MORE DETAIL

  • The Solomon Islands lie to the north east of Australia and play host to an array of cultures and artistic traditions. Our exceptional bust has a level of naturalism rarely seen in figurative work from this region. Solomon Island sculpture from the 19th century is, in the main, abstractions of the human form however this bust of a young man comes from a little understood tradition of sculptural realism. A common characteristic of art from this area is the predominant use of black pigment which is produced from the burning of certain oily nuts. Segments of finely cut nautilus shell create a silvery contrast to the black facial surface and depict body decorations of white paint worn on special occasions. Almost life-sized in its proportion the bust sports elongated ears with large circular ear ornaments. The hair was made blonde through bleaching it white by applications of caustic lime—a fashion among Solomon Islanders still today—and is highly likely to have been taken from the person this bust represents. There are a number of portrait sculptures known and this tradition served an unknown social or ritual role in the lives of Solomon Islanders. One response to the acquisitive demand of western visitors for decorative curios was the adaptation of this tradition to produce numerous static, less refined works for a fledgling western market.

    It is possible that artists worked in tandem on both the traditional life-like sculpture and also produced export curios serving markedly different economic, social and ritual roles. The bust may have originally been a focal point as a gift or the centerpiece in a display celebrating an individual’s passage to adulthood, marriage or remembering the departed. The realist manner of the bust could indicate the artist had been commissioned to record a particular person’s likeness for posterity as he would have been considered physically beautiful through having large ear plugs, a celestial nose and a well kept hair style.  

    Crispin Howarth
    Curator, Pacific Arts


    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

  • This exceptional bust of a young man has a level of naturalism rarely seen in figurative work from this region. Solomon Island sculpture from the nineteenth century usually comprises abstractions of the human form; however, this bust comes from a lesser-known tradition of sculptural realism.

    A common characteristic of art from this area is the predominant use of black pigment, produced from burning certain oily nuts. Segments of finely cut nautilus shell create a silvery contrast to the black facial surface and represent the body decorations of white paint worn on special occasions. Almost life-size, the bust features elongated ears adorned with large circular ornaments. The hair, made blonde using applications of caustic lime, may have been taken from the person this bust represents.

    A number of portrait sculptures exist but their role in the lives of Solomon Islanders remains debatable. One possibility is that artists may have worked on traditional lifelike sculptures while also producing decorative export curios to satisfy the acquisitive demand of westerners, thereby serving markedly different economic, social and ritual roles.

    The bust may originally have been intended as the focal point of a gift or the centrepiece in a display celebrating an individual’s passage to adulthood, marriage or remembering the departed. Its realism could indicate that the artist had been commissioned to record a particular person, his large earplugs, celestial nose and classic hairstyle being signifiers of great physical beauty.


    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
    From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014