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.
Curator, Pacific Arts
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010