Vanuatu Fernwood Figure, PNG Ca. 20th Century // Ex-Cincinatti Art Museum
Vanuatu Island, Papua New Guinea Ca. Mid 20th-Century
Carved from a solid section of the fibrous trunk of a tree fern composed of aerial roots surrounding a woody core, in the distinctive Vanuatu human form. This compact abstract figure is perched on conical base, with rounded hips, arms in relief around chest, and a large concave head with forehead curving to point and hanging over large nose. Traces of red and white paint against brown and black.
Figures such as these were created as part of the complex system of ‘grade’ rituals through which an individual was able to progress through a succession of different ranks, each of which conferred increasing social status, religious knowledge and, most crucially, equivalent rank in the afterlife. Indeed, on rare occasion it was possible for an individual who had attained the highest possible grade to become a member of the ‘living dead’, possessing the status of a revered ancestor even before their physical death. Progression in grade could take several years, and each increase in rank required ever greater expense and effort, with the initiate compelled to commission artworks and to distribute wealth, usually in the form of sacred tusker pigs. Figures were used in only one ceremony and different sizes were required for each increase in grade. During the grade rites, grade figures are erected on the dancing ground and serve as temporary abode for the spirits associated with the grade. After the ceremony, the figure, its purpose served, is left on the dancing ground, its supernatural powers waning as it slowly deteriorates.
Provenance: Cincinnati Art Museum Collection. Deacces. Sept. 15 2010.
Dims: 6 x 6 x 21 in