Oceanic art: Melanesia


Wood carvings and ritual masks, the best studied of Melanesian artifacts, are brilliantly colored. Each object was designed to serve a ritual purpose and thus was not meant to endure for posterity. Particular aspects of Melanesian art had an enormous impact on European artists, including Max Ernst and Constantin Brancusi (Sepik River style), Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore (New Ireland style), during the period from 1915 to 1940.

Among the principal styles familiar in the West are the symmetrical scrollwork carvings and symbolic bark-cloth paintings of the Geelvinck Bay area of Indonesian New Guinea; the carved drums and ritual figures and polychromed pottery of the Sepik River peoples, as well as their wood or basketry masks. Other well-known designs include the carved bird and spiral motifs and superbly decorated canoe prow boards of the Massim area of SE New Guinea and the elegant carved objects with mother-of-pearl inlay characteristic of the Solomon and Admiralty islands.

The Asmat of Indonesian New Guinea are famous for the “praying mantis”–like treatment of the human form. Also famous are their uramon, or soul ships, with elaborate pierced carved prows and their war shields with apotropaic designs. Their objects are spare, smooth, and distinctive. Among their most elegant works are canoes with clean, graceful lines, expansive houses, and sparsely decorated cult objects. The homes of bachelors often have relief carvings of mythological and historic significance, painted in yellow, black, red, and white.

In New Ireland, especially in the north, are found figures and masks made for the dead and heraldic wood sculptures known as Uli figures representing tribal chiefs and which are kept. Malanggan, large horizontal openwork carvings of soft wood, consist of friezes, independent sculptures, and masks. Styles are traditional but the privilege of changing a style can be purchased.

The Baining people of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain are known for their large masks made of bark cloth stretched over wickerwork frames. After ritual use these masks are destroyed. In New Caledonia carved panels of figures with rhomboid bodies and large flat noses are placed on either side of house doors. In the north masks topped by a ball of hair or plant fibers are worn together with nets covering the body; such masks represent aggressive war spirits or a water deity.

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