Massim Canoe Prow Board - Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

The Massim island groups of southeast Papua New Guinea have long practiced the ancient tradition of Kula, an ongoing, ceremonial exchange of valuables between islands both neighboring and distant. This process of exchange centers upon armbands made of conus shells and necklaces of red spondylus shells, for the trade of which rowers launch out into the open ocean in canoes lavished with decorative carvings. The acquisition of Kula treasures is a prestigious and desirable deed, and renowned participants achieve considerable fame and status.

One of the primary decorative elements of the Kula canoe is the splashboard (lagim), which stands at the nose of the boat. These represent some of the most iconic and impressive of Massim carvings, cut with mesmerizing curvilinear motifs and imbued with extensive symbolism. Just below the standing splashboard is a secondary prow board (tabuyo) that projects perpendicularly from the nose of the canoe, cutting through the waves. Like the lagim, the tabuyo is extremely ornate and bears symbolism pertaining to the Kula voyage. The aesthetics of beautifully carved canoes are believed to cast a kind of enchantment over the hosts of the visiting vessel, moving them to surrender their most precious Kula valuables. Highly abstract bird motifs representing sea eagles are prevalent in canoe board carvings and symbolize the keen “hunters” of Kula treasure metaphorically diving to claim their prey.

The tabuyo presented here is an excellent example of classic Massim carving style, with swirling, churning designs organized in a dense composition. The incisions delineating each segment of the dark sculptural mass are highlighted with white and red pigments, defining and intensifying the intricate woodwork. An elegant openwork section breaks away from the bulk of the board, emphasizing the piece’s organic asymmetry.

Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, natural pigments
L: 12 1/2 in H: 6 1/2 in

Private collection, New York

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