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Northern Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea Melanesia

Headdress [Upi] c.1920 Description: design in purple on natural background
Materials & Technique: sculptures, bamboo, fan palm, fibre
Dimensions: 37.0 h 38.5 diameter cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased through Sir William Dargie
Accession No: NGA 69.230.195

The purpose behind wearing bulbous and delicately made fibre headdresses varied from community to community in the northern Solomon Islands. In most areas, however, during the several years before a youth married he was required to wear the close-fitting headdress. During these years the hair grew, filling the inside of the hat and fixing it firmly to the head. The wearer had to be careful not to allow the headdress to fall or be knocked off his head. Removal of the headdress prior to marriage could result in painful discipline from the elders.
An early twentieth century account suggests that the wearing and removal of the headdress was linked with a young man’s entry into other areas of community life:

‘it is said that when considered old enough, the youths have to kill a man, the headdress is then removed, and the wearer is now allowed to eat pig or human flesh’.[1]

Each headdress had individualised geometric patterns formed by cutting and interlacing leaves dyed with vegetable pigments. Usually an outer layer of durable leaf sections was tied over them to protect the patterns during daily life. Reportedly these headdresses were still in use during the mid-1970s in some areas of Bougainville, and in other areas the tradition was experience some revival:

‘[on] Selau and parts of Banoni, the tradition is coming back and growing in popularity—probably due to a desire by the elders to reassert their traditional authority over the younger men’. [2]

[1] Graham Officer, Ms 9321, transcribed notes by Ron Vanderwal, Museum Victoria, n.d.

[2] Griffin, J. & Griffin, H, Bougainville artifacts: conserved or cookim coffee?, Occasional paper, Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, no1, 1975.

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