Roviana Lagoon Solomon Islands.
A Nguzu bought by a secondhand dealer in Brisbane at local flea market & presented to me for sale in my Gallery September 2007. Has no other background provenance & no use wear or age patina. Aprox 30cm. Light wood possibly PNG kwila. Shell holes appear to be drilled not bored? Back mount flange has no attachment holes (see photos). I declined to purchase as the asking price was $7,000 & it had been shown around other local Brisbane dealers & collectors. At the time I circulated an e mail asking for any further information & comments which received numerous responses with varying opinions. Subsequently reappeared on the eBay listings of a then dealer in November 2008 with a completely invented imaginative provenance and purportedly sold for $5,000. Has never surfaced since except to ignite a major scandal several years later which is to be the subject of a definitive discussion article.
Listed and unsold with Mossgreen Auction Gallery Melbourne
Canoe-prow figureheads were an important part of a war canoe. Their main positive supernatural 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. 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 relates to navigation, for the sighting of certain birds assisted in locating land.
Nusa Roviana in New Georgia - a larger island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands - was the regional centre of political power, demoted by British colonial intervention in the late 19th century. ‘The natives of these islands’ - says an anthropological study – ‘have for many centuries been in the habit of making raids upon neighbouring islands for the purpose of taking human heads and capturing slaves.’ The main instrument of these raids was the large war canoe called tomako – one of the biggest and most graceful indigenous watercraft of all times.
‘Their canoes are very well made and very light ... shaped like a crescent, the largest holding about thirty persons. ... Their speed in rowing is marvellous,’ this observation was recorded by Alvaro de Medeña, a Spanish navigator who visited the Solomon Islands in 1568 during his unsuccessful search for Terra Australis. ‘The canoes of these islands are constructed with great good sense, and finished with much skill: they are not formed of a trunk of a tree, made hollow by stone implements or fire ... but are made of pieces put together’ observed Jean-François-Marie de Surville - a French explorer in 1769. He described how the canoe was built of thin planks of timber ‘tied strongly with rattan to ribs of wood, bent in the shape of the boat, and serving as its frame. ...the joints are stopped with a black mastic, ... which renders these ... vessels impenetrable to the water.’
‘The bow and stern of all the war canoes’ – reads a 19th century report – ‘are beautifully patterned with an inlay work of mother-of-pearl and a string of porcelain cowries is secured all the way to the great prows. On the top of the prow of the war canoes there is usually a carved figure, the commonest being a kesoko’ - a bird or sea spirit.