Heads of this type were used in the extensive rituals of the men’s grade societies of Malekula in Vanuatu, formerly known as the New Hebrides. The principal grade society was the nimangki (or variations of this name), and by successfully amassing and distributing wealth, usually in the form of pigs, men were able to progress through a series of named grades and thereby increase their status.
The role of such heads in the rituals of nimangki and other secret societies, such as nevinbur, is not clear, but a comparable head is illustrated in Deacon (1934: pl. xvi), which is referred to as a ‘dancing stick’, held aloft by men when dancing so as to be just visible to women and children outside the special men’s enclosure.
This hollow head is modelled in a vegetable ﬁbre compound (see Deacon, 1934: 545 for the full recipe), and the hardwood stick which passes through the centre is ﬁxed with pieces of shredded cotton cloth. The face is painted red, white and black – colours which were adopted by men who had achieved particular grades in the nimangki hierarchy (Deacon, I934: 282-4). The red forms triangular areas around the eyes and also appears in V-shaped designs on the back. A ridge encircles the face, and others delineate the brows, cheeks, nose and mouth.
Steven Hooper, 1997
Entry taken from Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Vol. 2: Pacific, African and Native North American Art, edited by Steven Hooper (Yale University Press, 1997) p. 76.
Acquired by the Sainsbury Family in 1967. Donated to the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia in 1973 as part of the original gift.
Not on display
Born: 1900 - 1999
Materials: Fibre, Pigment, Wood
Measurements: h. 540 x w. 103 x d. 112 mm
Accession Number: 177
Historic Period: 20th century
Production Place: Malekula, Pacific, Vanuatu
Credit Line: Donated by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, 1973