Making Faces: The Expressiveness of Oceanic Tribal Art

Few art forms come close to ‘primitive’ art in sheer expressiveness. This isn’t too surprising. In every tribal society, be it African, Eskimo, Oceanic or Indonesian, art is never simply for art’s sake, but is a direct and uncensored dialogue with the spirit world in which tribal peoples move and have their being. This spiritual “dialogue” shows up most powerfully in the faces of ancestors and spirits carved in wood and stone or appear in textiles, weaponry and ornaments. Because these beings are depended upon to frighten enemies, subdue maleficent spirits and bring fecundity and prosperity to the community, they have to be expressively potent. Their potency wasn’t lost on modern Western artists. In the early 20th century, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti among others were so moved by the presence of the ‘tribal face’ that they incorporated elements of tribal expression into their own works, to transcend surface appearance and to enter the realm of the soul. By so doing, they changed the course of art history.

This post – the first of three instalments – feature the expressive art works of the islands that comprise Oceania, an area spanning an incredible 8.5 square kilometres and which includes Australasia, New Guinea and eastwards to the remote islands of Fiji, Tonga, the Caroline and Marquesas islands, Easter Island and Hawaii. The art works featured showcase the genius of peoples who have been dismissed for too long as being artistically naïve and unsophisticated.


Solomon Islands – Fragment of a sacred post, Solomon islands. Wood. H: 23 cm.

Canoe prow figurehead, Solomon Islands. Carved wood and pigments. Late 19th century. H: 23 cm.

Canoes in the western Solomon Islands were formerly lavishly adorned. The centrepiece of the prow was a distinctive figurehead. Attached at the waterline so that it dipped in the sea as the canoe rode the waves, the figurehead served as a supernatural protector ensuring safe passage and a successful expedition.

Figure on a sacred flute, Biwat people, Yuat River region, Papua New Guinea. Wood, stone, shell, boar tusk, human hair, cassowary feathers, fiber, pigment. 19th century. H: 53 cm.

If looks could kill, this sacred flute would certainly fit the bill. This fearsome figure sits at the top of a sacred bamboo flute made by the Biwat people who live along the Yuat River, a tributary of the lower Sepik River. Like others residing in the vicinity of the Sepik, such flutes are used during ceremonial occasions and pig feasts. The figural finials represent ancestors.

The delicate but haunting face of a mask from the Papuan Gulf on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea.
Papuan Gulf Mask, Papuan Gulf tapa mask, Purari Delta, 19th century.

Eastern Highlands gourd mask, Papua New Guinea. This rare mask was said to represent a spirit that causes leprosy and was used in dances to taunt young men into better behavior. Made from a hollowed out gourd. What elevates this mask above all other good mask is the color – both bold and nuanced achieved through the use of bright yellow pigments and set off by a thin red vertical line running down the face that ends in a pool of red at the chin.
Abelam yam mask, northeast New Guinea. Fiber and paint. 19th century. In elaborate ceremonies involving the exchange of long yams, the “heads” of the enormous tubers are decorated with specially made yam mask such as this one, which are made exclusively for yams, never for humans. This particular yam mask has an endearing broad smile which makes it uniquely charmingly – to both tuber and man.
Yipwon war charm with a highly abstract face carved in profile, Sepik river area, Papua New Guinea.

The affecting presence of a Boiken ancestor spirit figure. Yangoru Boiken peoples, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea. Wood.
Ancestral spirit face with hooks, Yangoru Boiken peoples, East Speak, Papua New Guinea. Wood.
Ancestor figure. Lower Sepik. Wood, 19th century.

A mask serving as the payment for a bride, Yangoru Boiken peoples, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea. Wood.
A rare mask from the northern region of Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, 19th century.
Lime spatula in the form of a smiley figure, with arms in the shape of a bird. Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, 19th century. H: 23.5 cm.

Kavat dance masks, Baining, New Britain

Detail of the Kavat mask

New Britain is the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago, east of Papua New Guinea, and also close to New Ireland. It is the place of the dramatic bark cloth kavat masks. These masks are used exclusively in a nocturnal dance performance lit by firelight. The dance accompanied by a male orchestra and dedicated to spirits, animals, and commodities associated with the surrounding forest, all of which indwelt in the kavat masks. Several dozen forms of kavat masks exist, each of which depicts a spirit linked with a specific animal, plant, product, or activity associated with the forest. The split top of this mask represents a humanoid spirit associated with the forks of trees.

Ancestor figure known as “Korwar”, Cenderawasih Bay, northern Irian Jaya, west Papua New Guinea. Wood, 19th century.

Korwars are figural statutes carved to provide a residence for the souls of recently deceased persons. Unique to the Cenderawasih Bay region of Irian Jaya, korwars are generally carved in a squatting or standing position with disproportionately large heads and arms resting on the knees. The eyes of korwars are typically embedded with colored beads, sometimes to charming effects as in this example.

A rare Korwar figure with two heads.

The Milne area lies in the southern region of Papua New Guinea and consists of 600 islands, of which about 160 are inhabited. Culturally, this area is known as “Massim”.  Massim art, exemplified by lime spatulas have a distinctively “happier” look than those carved in mainland New Guinea.

Ancestor figure, Asmat peoples, Irian Jaya, west Papua New Guinea. Sago wood, H: 171 cm. Early 20th century.

The Asmat inhabit the region bordering the southwestern coast of Irian Jaya, west Papua New Guinea, with land totalling 18,000 km² (7,336 mi²), mainly consisting of mangrove and tidal swamp and lowland rainforest. Asmat art, particularly, sculptures and shields carved from the wood of the sago palm are renowned to tribal art collectors worldwide. The menacing face of this ancestor figure, carved from sago wood, is designed to ward of bad spirits.

Malagan Uli ancestor fgure, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, off Papua New Guinea. H: 133 cm. This sculpture was formerly in the prominent Friedrich Wield collection.

Austere figures known as uli were displayed during the long cycles of ceremonies that accompanied the exhumation and subsequent reburial of the skulls of prominent men. Feasting, including the consumption of dozens of pigs, was an important activity in these occasions.

Detail of the Malagan Uli figure

Moai Kavakava statue, Rapa Nui (Easter Island),Polynesia. Wood with a beautiful red-brown patina. H. 50 cm (19.6 in).

Detail of Easter Island figure

Most of us have seen images of the awesome giant stone effigies on Easter Island known as Moa Aringa Ora (literally figures with living eyes). In times past, hamlets were built under the gaze of these stone giants, within which spiritual ceremonies were held. Here, the priests of the ceremonies would hold clusters of wooden statuettes like the one shown, representing their protectors. When not in public ceremonial use, these wooden figures would reside in the family home; in this intimate setting, they participated in family rituals.

Pair of Rapa ceremonial paddle, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Polynesia. H: 71 cm.

Detail of Easter Island paddle

This pair of ceremonial paddle is a masterpiece of Polynesian art, a prime example of the sublime abstraction of the human form. Each paddle is devoid of any decoration save the stylized face which is an elegant statement itself, each face being a simple construction consisting of curved eyebrows extending into the nose ridge with a sparse representation of the ear ornaments. The lower body ends in a phallic appendage.

War club, Marquesas Islands, Polynesia. Wood, 150 cm. 19th century.

. Warfare was an integral part of Marquesas society up to the 19th century. The two faces of this war club is carved in the form of a stylized human face. Projecting knobs carved as small heads suggest eyes and nose. The ridgeline between the eyes curve into arching brows.

An exquisite ivi po’o (small bone cylinder) from the Marquesas Islands. Ivi po’o are a form of personal adornment that could be plain or intricately decorated. This one features a carved human form and is referred to as a tiki ivi po’o. They are believed to represent ancestral deities. This piece was once in the Jacob Epstein collection.

Maori wooden head, New Zealand. Wood, 19th century. H: 14 cm.

Maori Hei tiki pendant, New Zealand, nephrite jade, wax red seal. H: 10 cm.

Such pendants are considered symbols of power, reserved for high ranking men and women. The proximity of a tiki to the wearer’s head is believed to endow him orher with a “tapu” (sacred) character). This tiki is a masterpiece in jade quality, proportions and color aesthetics.

Maori net float. Wood. Mid-19th century. H: 31 cm. Michael Hamson, U.S.
Maori Lintel or pare (also known as korupe) Taupo area, Maori People, Central North Island, New Zealand, Polynesia. Pine wood and red pigment, pre-1850, 70 x 29.5 x 7.8 cm.
Detail of Moari lintel
Staff god, Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Polynesia. Wood. H: 85 cm. 18th – early 19th century. Private collection (Gordon Sze).

Ancestral figures and flying foxes descend sequentially down the central arm of this carved ritual staff god, symbolizing the close genealogical relationship between humans, their gods, and the natural world. Tightly bound with huge bolts of barkcloth when not in use, these staff gods were ritually activated when unwrapped by chiefs and priests during ceremonial rites.

Ritual dish, Fiji, Polynesia. Wood, 32 x 20 x 5.7 cm. Early 19th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Detail of Fiji ritual dish

Expertly carved from a single block of sacred vesi wood, this shallow anthropomorphic vessel was used to serve yaqona, a mild narcotic prepared from the ground root of the pepper plant. Imbibing this narcotic is thought to encourage the powerful ancestor spirit, in the looming form of the vessel to enter into the body of the priest.

Micronesia – Figure of a god, wood, 18th century. Musee du Quai Branly, Paris.

This figure belongs to a small group of thirty-seven sculptures from Nukuoro, in the remote Caroline Islands in Micronesia. They arrived in Western museum collections from the 1870s onwards and the purity of the human form embodied by these figures greatly inspired the development of modern abstract sculptures

Figure, Tuvalu (formerly Ellice islands), Polynesia. Wood and shell. H: 38 cm.

Little is known about the function of these minimalist figures which are generally attributed to the remote Tuvalu islands situated north of Fiji, on the border of Micronesia and Polynesia. The simplicity of the form connects this figure to the equally rare free-standing figures of the Caroline islands in Micronesia

Female guardian figure, Tonga, Polynesia. Wood, 18th to early 19th century. H: 37 cm. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

This wood figure may have been a vehicle through which the female deity Hikule’o manifested in the physical realm. The figure is notable for its compact and restrained posture which nevertheless expresses a strong sense of vigour through the geometry of her breasts, buttocks and limbs. The angular features of her body are balanced by the serene, mask-like face.

Executed in a highly expressionistic style called Kona, both the facial and bodily features of this figure of the god of war, made during the reign of King Kamehameha I, combine into a single fearsome and extremely powerful image. It was a turbulent time, and ‘Ku became the king’s effigy, and symbol of his authority.

Figure representing the god of war, ku ka ’ili moku. Hawaii, Polynesia. Wood, H: 63 cm. 18th century.

Executed in a highly expressionistic style called Kona, both the facial and bodily features of this figure of the god of war, made during the reign of King Kamehameha I, combine into a single fearsome and extremely powerful image. It was a turbulent time, and ‘Ku became the king’s effigy, and symbol of his authority.

Kava bowl, wood, 18th century. L: 49.8 cm. British Museum.

This bowl made from kou wood, pearl shell and cut sections of boar’s tusks, feature two anthropomorphic figures. It was probably made and used for drinking kava, a bitter beverage made from the root of the kava plant which is believed by the Polynesians to have medicinal qualities.

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