Art and Society in Melanesia

This carving of a bonito from Santa Ana, Solomon Islands, was used to preserve the skull of an individual totemically related to the fish. The bones were stored in a model canoe.

This carving of a bonito from Santa Ana, Solomon Islands, was used to preserve the skull of an individual totemically related to the fish. The bones were stored in a model canoe.

The Melanesians have developed a startling variety of customs, traditions, and cultures. The tremendous array of art objects and styles was due to the vast number of microsocieties; there was little variation within a single clan. Art among the Melanesians was a rigidly traditional medium of expression. If an object didn’t correspond precisely to an accepted form, it couldn’t capture the magic and the spirits, and thus would be meaningless and useless.

Melanesian society was based on consensus, gift giving, exchange, and obligation. Although there were a headman and a few sorcerers in each village, these were either elected at village councils or they “bought” their way up in society by giving feasts and pigs. Unlike Polynesian life, there were no hereditary classes of rulers or priests and no political unions outside the clan unit (the social structures in Fiji were influenced by Polynesia).

Secret societies existed and needed objects for initiation ceremonies and feasts to mark a man’s passage to a higher grade. Some objects ensured fertility for man and the soil; others celebrated the harvest. Totemic figures (animals believed to be related to the clan by blood) were common. Everyday objects were artistically made, and almost everything was brightly painted. Many figures and masks were made specifically for a single ceremony, then discarded or destroyed.

More important than the social function of art was the religious function, especially in the cult of the dead. Ancestors were believed to remain in this world, and their advice and protection were often sought. The skull, considered the dwelling place of the soul, was often decorated and kept in the men’s house. Sometimes carvings were made to provide a home for the spirits of the ancestors, or they were represented by posts or images. Masks were used to invoke the spirits in dance. The beauty of the objects was secondary; what the Melanesian artist sought was to create an embodied symbolism of the ancestors. In this rigid, ritual world the spirits of the dead possessed greater power than the living, and this power could be both harmful and beneficial.