Trobiand Islands – Massim – canoe board, figure & scrolls, red + white, earlier 20th c.

$780.00 AUD

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

60×33.5cm

Condition: good with minor signs of age.

Provenance: from a Melbourne, Australia, collection

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

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc-M-340

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 pealshell plaques, armbands, necklaces, and other distinct items.

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