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