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Makira-Ulawa people Makira-Ulawa Province, Solomon Islands
Bonito [Fish] before 1930 Place made: Makira-Ulawa Province, Solomon Islands Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, paint, shell, nut putty
Dimensions: 38.0 h x 90.0 w x 35.0 d cm 540 h x 920 w x 400 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2008
Accession No: NGA 2008.708

Large sculptures of the bonito fish (Katsuwonus pelamis), more commonly known as skipjack tuna, are iconic symbols in the art of the Solomon Islands. The fish were, and still are in some areas, considered sacred. They form a link to the ancestors and to sea spirits; their presence indicates good relations between man and the spirit world. This can perhaps be explained by the important role they play in the fishing cultures of the Solomon Islands.

Bonito are attracted to shoals of smaller fish and tend to form schools that aggressively attack the shoal, driving them to the surface of the water. Birds are attracted by this turmoil, swooping into the fray for their pickings. This spectacle is a signal for fishermen who are also intent in taking advantage of the bonito schools’ work. Although the smaller fish are made easy to catch by the bonito, the real prize is the bonito itself. Actually catching a bonito, however, requires consummate skill.

Bonito are smooth–skinned with no scales; they have red blood and are described as being the ‘humans of the sea’. The sighting of the first bonito each season is a signal to begin festivities that involve passing the traditional knowledge of this unpredictable fish to young initiates. These festivities were organised in front of the sacred canoe houses, which faced out toward the sea.

The canoe house is where the large sculpture of bonito fish along with carvings of sharks and relics such as the skeletal trophies of pigs, people and fish decorated the already elaborate structure. On certain occasions, such as the arrival of the bonito schools, sculpture of bonito fish and those of frigate birds would be moved out of the canoe house and attached to dance platforms near the shore. The Gallery’s bonito exhibits a widely used aesthetic choice in the art of the Solomon Islands: the use of hundreds of tiny triangles of shell inlay against a contrasting black mass—the black colouration is derived from a mixture of soot, plant resin and possibly ink obtained from nautilus fish. This technique gives the impression, when displayed in a darkened canoe house illuminated by torchlight, of the sculpture being underwater with rippling reflections of the sun and watery shadows shimmering as if the fish is in motion.

The artist has presumably observed bonito in its underwater habitat, when its fins would be fully extended, and captured its essence in this work.

Crispin Howarth
Curator, Pacific Arts

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Religious practices in the province of Makira were less aggressive than in other areas, and many religious elements were based around the sea. Large sculptures of bonito fish (Katsuwonus pelamis) hung from the rafters inside ceremonial canoe-houses along with carvings of sharks and people, and trophies of fish skeletons left over from feasts.
Bonito are scaleless, smooth-skinned fish copiously filled with red blood similar to that of people. So close are the connections between bonito and people that one part of the maraufu or malaohu initiation ceremonies included the flowing of blood from the bonito into the mouth of initiates.

The sacred nature of bonito accorded to bonito continues into the present day in some areas:

‘To the Melanesians of the South-east Solomons the catching of the bonito is one of the things for which he exists. To him it is the king of fish … these bonito fish are no ordinary fish, they are virgin born, and are under the care of special ghosts and sharks’.[1]

Bonito are very difficult to catch and could only be caught when their protective deities wished them to be caught; their seasonal arrival signified the start of initiation events and the sharing of traditional knowledge. Sculptures of bonito and frigate birds were taken out of the canoe-house and attached to decorated platforms erected on the shore, facing out to sea, for ceremonial performances.
Bonito band into a school to prey on shoals of small baitfish, working together to aggressively attack the shoal and drive it towards the surface, where fish hawks, terns and frigate birds and sharks enter the fray. This natural phenomenon attracts fishermen to the churning waters and the possibility of capturing bonito. These bonito-instigated events may last for hours or dissipate quickly, and are considered to be episodes of almost supernatural occurrence.

The employment of hundreds of tiny shell sections on this sculpture gives the impression of the bonito underwater. Rippling reflections of the sun and watery shadows would shimmer as if the fish were in motion when it was illuminated by torch-light in a darkened canoe-house.
A highly developed sense of form typical of sculpture from the Solomon Islands is evident in this work. The artist observed bonito in their underwater habitat with their fins fully extended, and captured the essence of the creature.

[1] WG Ivens, Melanesians of the south-east Solomon Islands, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1927. p 130.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2011
From: Crispin Howarth with Deborah Waite Varilaku: Pacific arts from the Solomon Islands National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2011