Temes Nevimbur figure, Vanuatu

Plant fibers, warthog teeth, spider web

18 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 7 in. (47 x 21 x 18 cm)


About this object

For an impression of Oceania's enormous artistic and cultural diversity, one need only look at the modern nation of Vanuatu, a single archipelago with a population of some 200,000 people that is home to more than twice as many cultures and languages as the whole of Europe. The majority of Vanuatu 's sculptural traditions are, or were, created in connection with male religious institutions, such as men's houses, secret societies, and, especially, grade rituals, a hierarchical series of initiations, each of which confers successively greater religious knowledge and social prestige. Similar institutions exist for women in some areas, but they do not typically involve the production of sculpture.

Vanuatu's sculptural traditions are primarily confined to the northern and central regions of the archipelago and include diverse types of grade figures and other images, as well as the massive vertical slit gongs that loom over the village dancing grounds, their deep resonant rhythms accompanying ceremonies and other performances. The archipelago's numerous masking traditions are primarily associated with grade rites, initiation, and other ritual contexts and range from durable objects made of wood to more ephemeral creations fashioned from leaves, matted spider webs, or a papier-maché-like material made from finely chopped plants.

The same kind of materials and technique have been used for this Temes Nevimbur: the head is constructed using a technique similar to papier-maché in which a solid core is covered over with a paste made from finely chopped plant materials. Once hardened, the surface is painted using a combination of local pigments.

These Temes Nevimbur (puppet heads or marionettes) are used during important ceremonies by members of a men’s secret society, such as “Nevimbur”. The heads are used in displays to tell mythological stories. The heads are placed on a stick and the men perform with them from behind the community’s dancing-ground fence (a sacred area).

Eric Kjellgren. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007.