, Nguzunguzu [canoe prow figure] Enlarge 1 /2
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Western Province, Solomon Islands Melanesia

Nguzunguzu [canoe prow figure] 19th century Materials & Technique: sculptures, canoes figurines, wood, paint, shell, nut putty
Dimensions: 15.5 h x 12.0 w x 10.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.58

War canoes from the Solomon Islands were the most remarkable of Melanesian canoes for their construction and decoration. Built up from a complex assemblage of neatly hewn planks lashed tightly to one another with fibre, they were painted with designs in black, and lines of gleaming inlaid shell, rows of cockatoo feathers and white shell ornaments commonly adorned the sweeping prow. They were narrow, yet vast in length and height, some reaching 13 metres in length. War canoes and the houses they were kept in were the pride of their community. [1]

Canoe-prow figureheads were an important part of a war canoe. Their main recorded function was to serve the canoe and its warriors in a protective manner. The spirit of the prow figure protected against natural and supernatural elements: anything from storms and dangerous waters to menacing water spirits. The large eyes and ears aided in warding off sea spirits; the ears to hear everything in the air and underwater, the eyes fixed open in an ever-watchful, piercing gaze. The figureheads are quite small and, due to being tied to the prow low down at the water-line, could be easily overlooked. The majority have horizontally thrusting (prognathic) jaw-lines and long curved upturned noses which combine to give them a somewhat dog-like countenance.

Canoe-prow figureheads are ubiquitously painted black, occasionally with red, white or blue paint applied to the hair, hat or teeth. Lines of carefully inlaid shell decorate their faces, in rigid lines and flowing patterns that replicate the white-painted designs of everyday facial decoration. On the inlay is particularly finely cut into Z-shaped sections called asepaleo, or 'small baitfish's mouth', in Roviana. [2] The treatment of the ears commonly resembles the large circular lobes created by the insertion of earplugs.

Most figureheads have hands pressed together under the chin; some clutch objects such as birds and small human heads. The severed head is an obvious head-hunting symbol, but the meaning behind a bird cupped in the hands is unclear. The bird could be a missionary-influenced motif or, perhaps more likely, relate to navigation, for the sighting of certain birds assisted in locating land. [3]

Crispin Howarth

[1] War canoes were kept well maintained, stored away from the damaging effects of the sun and rain in specially constructed walled houses with slits rising up from the open entrance to accommodate the entry of the bow and stern. Canoe-houses deserve mention as they were places to conduct ritual; they acted as men's clubhouses. They also stored the bones from memorable feasts of fish, turtles and birds, as well as acting as the ossuary for skulls gained from head-hunting expeditions. In many cases the supporting house-posts were carved with images of people, birds and sharks, the most remarkable of these being found in the canoe-houses of Makira and nearby smaller islands

[2] R Joura, Description of shell inlay patterns. Unpublished ms, nd

[3] Waite, 1999, p 88


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