Solomon Islands Canoe Prow Ornament - New Georgia

Early Solomon Islanders carried out headhunting expeditions in large, highly decorated canoes capable of holding several dozen warriors at once. Ornaments with human features, called nguzu-nguzu (or musu-musu), were attached to the canoe’s tall prow, just above the waterline. Generally believed to represent spirits who provided protection and guaranteed the success of expeditions, it has also been suggested that the pronounced heads were intended to strike fear of decapitation into enemies. 

Nguzu-nguzu have been documented as early as the middle of the 18th century in the journal of the French soldier, navigator, and explorer Louis de Bougainville, who gave his name to the northernmost of the Solomon Islands. Most figureheads are decorated with black lip oyster shell inlays in patterns which replicate those found on the faces of warriors. This example features decorative inlay at the forehead, chin, eyes and teeth. The domed head or coiffure, projecting forehead, and sloping face are confidently carved in canonical style. Arms reach from behind the jaw to bring the hands together under the chin, providing support for the carving in its exposed place at the prow of the canoe.

19th century
Wood, black lip pearl oyster shell
8 ¼” h
Provenance:
- John J. Klejman, New York
- Faith-Dorian & Martin Wright Collection, New York, acquired from the above on May 29, 1968

Exhibited in The Art of the Pacific Islands, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1979

Published in The Art of the Pacific Islands, Peter Gathercole, Adrienne L. Kaeppler, and Douglas Newton, Washington, DC, 1979, p. 233, cat. no. 15.18
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