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Tribal Focus

Curated Collections

An exotic collection of ‘Tribal’ has just been launched on – from Australian Aboriginal, to our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, and far beyond to the Pacific nations and African cultures, there’s quite a number of interesting ‘tribal’ items to browse.

New Caledonia Carved Tribal Figures
New Caledonia Carved Tribal Figures

Tribal art is important, as while the West became more sophisticated, it remained the same – simple forms, compelling story-telling through highly stylised illustrations in carving and paint.
For this reason, the ‘Modernists’, those artists who dragged the Western World into the modern aesthetic, sought out primitive art for its honest truth and pure, basic forms.

Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso all collected, and were influenced by art & objects from Africa, South America, and the Pacific. In the 19th century, it had been collected as ‘curios’: in the early 20th century, it was seen as an important aspect of the human art-scape, where tribal people had created pure forms unencumbered by the baggage of the Classical (Greek & Roman) world.

Today, this theme is still very much alive – but it has transformed to something new, with modern artists from the First Nations of a multitude of countries now exploring their own heritage, and merging it with the 21st century.

It certainly makes the world a much more graphically interesting – and colourful – place!

Moorabool’s Tribal

Australia is a terrific source for tribal art. When Europeans first came, they were eager to explore the culture that was already here. Collections were formed – many pieces were shipped overseas – even as the catastrophical encroachment of Western culture destroyed the peoples who had created them. The misfortune of colonisation cannot be overstated- but looking back, it was the Europeans who were fascinated by the Aboriginal People who preserved not only the languages in some areas, but also no end of artefacts which they gathered for their collections. Today, these items are often the only surviving link to long-lost Koori culture that goes back tens of thousands of years.

Elsewhere, the travelling Westerners collected also, and often settled in Australia. As the main British presence in the region, Sydney and Melbourne were the access point for the governing of areas such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea. During WWII, this became particularly important as troops moved into the islands north and east of Australia to deflect the planned Japanese take-over. The soldiers on these expeditions often became very involved in the local situations, and numerous examples of soldiers stationed in New Guinea staying on after the war for decades occur: one of the sources for our present collection was a photographer in WWII for the RAAF, and stayed on in a government role, marrying a PNG local and living there for the next 30 years.

Captain Cook

These prints are dramatic records of the British exploration of the Pacific in the 18th century – ‘CNN reporting live from the South Pacific’. They were published by numerous firms in London, and later in France, for many decades, in various sizes.

Pacific Tribal Canoes
Moorabool’s Pacific Tribal Canoe models


Australian Aboriginal culture, or as it is now popularly called ‘First Nation’, is the oldest continual culture on the planet. Early European contact was dismissive of their achievements, but we now see just how impressive it is for a culture to survive that period of time in an environment Europeans could not survive in for long.
We do see a large amount of Australian Aboriginal artifacts at Moorabool – the largest being the ‘woomera’ shown below. This is a prime example of their superior survival skills and technical innovation: a woomera is a spear-thrower, basically a long leaver-extension for a hunting spear. When used to launch a spear, it resulted in an incredible 60% extra force and massive increase in distance. This particular example, at 2.66 meters, is the longest we have seen, and is an original usable piece made without European tools or materials.

Papua New Guinea

Trobiand Islands

The Trobiand Islands are part of the Solomon Island group, to the north-east of Papua New Guinea. They were the origin of a remarkable style of tribal art, with very stylised, elegant scrolling forms, often in shallow carved format filled with lime pigment to make them stand out.

Trobiand Island canoe splashboard

A Trobian Islands Canoe Board

Impressive carved & painted canoe board, with symmetric-carved columns & scrolls, pierced & layered for dramatic effect, incorporating a small seated figure at the very top, the whole picked out in traditional white & red colours.

Solomon Islands/ Trobiand Islands – Milne Bay

earlier 20th century

Provenance: from a Melbourne, Australia, collection

The same iconography can be seen on an example in the British Museum –

These canoe boards were used by the communities of the Solomon Islands, in particular those of the Trobiand Islands, where the vast Milne Bay region supported a flourishing trade network connected by large trading canoes. When voyages of trade were made, they were festival occasions, and both the crew and the canoe was ‘dressed to impress’. These extremely elaborate boards (also known as ‘splashboards’) were placed at the front & back of the dugout canoes, closing off the ends & helping keep water out. They are called ‘migila waga’,  roughly translating as ‘the face of the canoe’.

An excellent eyewitness image can be found in the work of the Royal Geographical Society fellow Ellis Silas. He travelled through the region in the 1920’s and sketched numerous examples of the elaborate canoe decorations, now in the British Museum collection.

Ellis Silas Trobiand Canoe splashboard sketch 1921-4
Early 1920’s sketch by Ellis Silas showing a Trobiand canoe with splashboard in place.  British Museum.

The carvings are all meaningful: the seated figure in the centre of this board in particular appears consistently. This is the most important aspect of the piece: known as the bwalai, it must be ‘spelled’ with the right magic by the canoe owner prior to a journey. If the canoe capsizes, the bwalai comes to the rescue by summoning a giant fish that will take the sailors safely ashore. If the magic used is not correct or if the canoe owner forgets to utter the spell, the bwalai will turn into sharks and sea monsters and devour the crew!

The trade ritual was known as the ‘Kula‘, and was different from the commercial trade for goods. The items exchanged were ‘non-use’ decorations, solely to enhance one’s social status. The act of giving was a display of greatness, but given with a show of exaggerated modesty; the goods also had to be passed on within a short period of time, and as they passed through the circle of participants, it is known as the ‘Kula Ring’. It incorporated a large number of wide-spread island communities to the north and east of, including the Massim of the Trobiand Islands. Goods traded were pearlshell plaques, armbands, necklaces, and other distinct items.

Massim Wealth Axe Head
Massim Wealth Axe Head

The large polished adze heads are another aspect of Kula trade. These are extremely robust, and the dense mottled green stone must have taken a huge effort to polish and shape. They were highly treasured items of wealth & status, and while we have dated ours to ’19th century’, it is quite plausible that they are many centuries older, passed from generation to generation. The example with the chips shows an amount of wear to the chip-sites, which can only happen through lots of handling – suggesting a very great age.

Solomon Islands War Canoe & Nguzu Nguzu

This large model of a War Canoe from the Solomon Islands is quite dramatic.
When the Royals Kate & William visited in 2014, they were treated to a ride in one, as shown below.

Solomon Islands Tamoko War Canoe model
Solomon Islands Tomako War Canoe model (mocked-up photo of it afloat!)

Pacific Islands

Tapa Cloth

Gilbert Islands (Kiribati)

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