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Solomon Island Treasures

16340.jpgBamboo tongs, shark carvings and dancing sticks seem a strange lot to group together. But each item is part of the significant Solomon Islands collection held at the Waikato Museum.

Donated to the Museum in 1973 by Dr. Hirini Mead, the collection is an intriguing mix of domestic, ceremonial and ‘new art’ objects, which combine to provide a unique insight into Island culture.

Located within Melanesia, the Solomon Islands have a close proximity to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Many of the objects in the collection come from the islands of Santa Ana, San Cristobal and Santa Catalina, where the men are well known for their woodcarving skills. Woodcarving is recognised as the predominant artistic medium of cultural ideas, themes and feelings, and features significantly in the collection, along side practical objects such as fish floats and coconut water containers.

The carvings in the collection are often ceremonial, such as bowls, shields and canoes, and are used in initiation ceremonies. Many also reflect myths and legends of the region. One carving from San Cristobal is based on the mythological theme of Kakwaronaaru, the founding ancestress of Santa Ana and Santa Catalina. In the carving, she is shown riding upon her other self, the turtle Kakwaronaaru who was the ancestress of the turtle clan.

Another sculpture depicts Wairowo, a shark deity taking Mauriasi for a ride. A religious myth, the character Mauriasi apparently stayed alive by breathing through the anal canal of Wairowo the shark. Certainly a surprise amongst the bowls and baskets!

While many of the carvings are traditional, there is also a significant representation of ‘new art’ in the collection. Anthropologists coined the term to describe the wooden artefacts being produced by the islanders to generate income. New art is often more ornate or detailed, and saw the introduction of freestanding figures.

With careful nautilus shell inlays, dark wood and sometimes bizarre associations, the carvings can overshadow everyday domestic items. But the domestic items provide their own insights to everyday island life. Plain eating bowls are a stark contrast to those decorated for tourists, and feather fish floats (funanamanu) point to a staple diet. Baskets are used for carrying and storing food, or suspending food over a fire. And the bamboo tongs of course were used to remove food from a steaming hot umu – similar to a hangi.

A few personal artefacts are also tucked away in the shelves, including a tattoo chisel and mallet. Female tattooists used the instruments on female subjects, and Mead notes that older women were often more tattooed than younger women. This was a sign of status, as tattoos were often completed when male relatives had gone on an important journey, or if they themselves had visited another island. The Museum also holds an ake, or apron, which was worn by women, and the design of which allowed the full splendour of the tattoos to be shown off. The only men tattooed were priests.

A nose ornament and comb also feature, with the comb lashed together with yellow and red fibres. Both men and women wore combs although as with all ornamentation except tattooing, the men’s were more elaborate than the women’s.

A significant collection in the Museum holdings, the Mead collection showcases a different way of life. And undoubtedly gets you thinking about sharks in a whole new way.