Gifts often have an unexpected way of appearing out of the blue. This is certainly true of this recent gift of 11 indigenous works from the Solomon Islands and the accompanying albums of archival photographs.
Mr and Mrs Middenway offered this generous gift in memory of Captain Arthur Middenway (1878–1940) as a pleasant and unexpected response to the exhibition Varilaku: Pacific arts from the Solomon Islands, which was on display in early 2011.
Captain Arthur Middenway was appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific based at Gizo in the Solomon Islands in 1921. A year later, he became the District Administrative Officer, gaining magisterial powers. He served in the Solomon Islands until his retirement in 1935. The indigenous works that comprise this gift were collected by Middenway during this time.
Middenway was also was an avid photographer, and his photographic albums included with this gift to the Gallery visually document the era of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Images of administrative buildings, resident traders, bêche-de-mer divers, visiting steamships, native canoes and coastal scenery are some of the remarkable examples of panoramic photography taken with a swing-lens camera that captured large vistas. His contribution to society in the Solomon Islands was considerable and the main road of Gizo is named in his honour.
The gifted figurative works represent a group of artists active in the Roviana lagoon area (possibly near Munda) of New Georgia Island during the early twentieth century.
Exceptional among them is Portrait bust of an elder, which is decorated with plugs of real human hair fashionably bleached from combing with powered lime. The figure’s ears are pierced, to receive large ear plugs, yet hang loosely, as such adornments were important in youth or were only worn for special occasions. His face is furrowed with wrinkle lines, and the artist has created signs of old age through the seeming tautness of skin over the cheekbones and eye orbits. The mouth is open revealing two real teeth; the realism of expression is near perfect. This work complements another refined work in the national art collection: Portrait bust of a young man.
Other outstanding works are the near-life-sized and perfectly proportioned Figure of a young child, standing upright with tiny segments of nautilus shell inlay on her face and separately carved arms pegged onto the body. She bears her teeth in an aggressive scowl as if in a tantrum, the raised clenched hand holds some form of a ball or perhaps a throwing stone ready to let fly.
Bowl supported by two figures features both a man and a woman offering the bowl between each other. Walking stick of undulating form, one of two walking sticks included with the gift, is particularly appealing, as the artist used the natural form of a branch to create a serpent-like animal with the head of a hornbill. Two more fascinating works are miniature doll-like male and female figures made for Middenway’s son, who spent his childhood in the Solomon Islands. Along with these works of art are more sculptures, a carved chalice and decorative combs.
A proportion of Middenway’s collection was given to the Suva Museum in Fiji over 50 years ago, perhaps in recognition of his time working for the Fijian Colonial Service prior to the First World War. However, this gift to the National Gallery of Australia in his memory comprises a select group of works Captain Middenway and his family appreciated the most.
Crispin Howarth Curator, Pacific Arts
in artonview, issue 70, winter 2012