Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Canoe Prow Ornament (Taburi)

19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Massim region, Milne Bay Province
Massim region
Wood, paint
H. 47 in. (119.4 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
This canoe ornament is made of two separate pieces. The bottom part (1978.412.709) is a carved board, known as tabuy or adaban in the languages of the northeastern area of the Massim region where this piece was made. It is cut from a single piece of flat wood (usually the buttress of a Ficus tree) in a curving shape, incised and decorated on both sides with a series of curvilinear abstract designs and anthropomorphic motifs. The bottom part of the board is carved in low relief and intricate openwork, while the upper vertical section comprises a solid panel with fretwork only around its edges. In its original placement on the dugout canoe, the longer, pierced edge of the tabuy rests horizontally on one end of the keel. As it projects forward away from the boat, the tabuy curves upwards, ending on a thinner, undecorated shank that stands at an approximately 90-degree angle with the horizontal lower part of the board. A series of bored holes which perforate the now-damaged perimeter of the board would have been lashed with white cowrie shells (Ovula ovum) for added decoration on sailing voyages.

A smaller openwork carving (1978.412.1492 ) crowns the tabuy board; it is fixed in place by lashing together the shank that tops the tabuy and the flat oval handle at the base of the small carving. When tying them, the handle of the small ornament is superimposed on the board’s finial shank always on the side opposite the outrigger float of the canoe. This small piece has a bilateral curvilinear design with two stylized birds facing away from each other at the bottom, surmounted by two comma-shaped forms and an overarching crescent top under which the beaks of two facing birds converge in the middle. This removable piece is known in the Massim as man, (literally “animal” or “bird”) and is painted in the same black, red and white colors as the board on top of which it is mounted. According to Massim peoples, these two carved pieces reunite decorative and cosmological elements and are instrumental to the integrity of the canoe.

The Massim region of Papua New Guinea is well known for a type of ceremonial exchange known as Kula, where participants travel between islands in highly decorated seagoing canoes to obtain one of two types of ranked shell valuables. The success of these competitive exchanges is partly reliant upon the explicit associations that Massim islanders make between art and magic. The tabuy canoe boards and the man, when rightfully and skillfully executed by a master carver, are said to be both beautiful and efficacious, imparting mobility, speed and resistance to the canoe and helping Kula participants secure shell valuables. In addition to their magic and aesthetic properties, carved canoe boards are also used to convey messages visually. If a canoe loses a crew member, it must remove one of the man top ornaments as it approaches its landing, so that the people on shore know they have to observe a respectful mourning attitude and refrain from expressing joy at the arrival of the canoe.

Tabuy and man have elaborated stylized motifs that are associated to specific animals, the qualities of which are bestowed upon the canoe. For instance, the fast swimming squid imparts swiftness, while the snake motif is associated to the binding strength of lashing materials, essential in keeping the canoe seaworthy. Bird symbology is particularly rich: the abstract sea eagle emblem found in the tabuy is identified with the canoe’s constant search for prey in the form of Kula shells. Other stylized birds carved in the tabuy and the man are the tern, the kingfisher, the frigate bird and the dove. The capacity of these birds to fly in-between islands is acknowledged by Massim peoples, who use the birds as navigation aids. All these symbols contribute to anthropomorphizing the canoe, to the point of considering its “nose” (both ends of the carved keel where the decorated boards are situated) as being capable of “smelling” land – just as birds do – and therefore assisting canoe crews in making landings.

The visual imagery of the prow board and its top ornament also extends beyond individual motifs, their general shape connoting a human body or a face. In Gawa Island, the man is identified with the head of the canoe and the tabuy with its shoulders. In keeping with the boat’s personification, before undertaking a Kula journey tabuy and man are washed and painted, undergoing a beautification process not unlike the men who are to sail in the canoe, who also need to adorn themselves. With the addition of cowrie shells and pandanus streamers, the canoe becomes like a decorated man, ready to seduce Kula exchange partners into surrendering their best valuables.

Canoe master carvers hold a privileged position throughout the Massim. They are recognized as interpreters of a complex system of knowledge that brings together immaterial elements such as magic spells, oral myths, taboos and rituals with the material components necessary to carve a canoe and all its pieces. Carvers need to learn the particularities of tree and plant species and command high manual skills to be able to produce the right canoes and prow boards. In the Massim islands, a sense of what is right is conveyed by objects that are beautiful and efficacious at the same time. When executed properly, the complex carvings of Massim canoes achieve the much-sought qualities of radiance, lightness and attractiveness that are crucial in attaining the goals sought in any Kula expedition.

This type of tabuy is only found in the anageg model of Kula canoes, in the northeastern region of the Massim. Strictly speaking, Massim canoes do not have a prow and a stern. As the outrigger of the canoe must always be kept to windward, prow and stern are interchangeable every time the vessel inverts the direction of travel. Massim peoples refer to their canoes as having a “crown end” and a “root end,” after the tree from which their keel was made. Although to an untrained eye these two are hard to tell apart, Massim peoples distinguish both ends and consider the top or crown tip as the front of the canoe. Anageg canoes are bigger and sturdier than Kula canoes from other parts of the Massim, probably owing to the longer distances between islands and the rougher open seas of that area. Anageg canoes have a tabuy prow board and a man on each end, and although they may look identical, prow and stern decorations differ. These ones in particular correspond to the prow of the canoe.

Sergio Jarillo, Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017

Further reading

Damon, Frederick H. 2016. Trees, Knots and Outriggers. Environmental Knowledge in the Northeast Kula Ring. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Munn, Nancy D. 1986 The Fame of Gawa. A Symbolic Study in Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Madeline Rousseau, until after 1951; [John J. Klejman, New York, until 1956]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1956, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1972; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1972–1978

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Vol. 2nd ed.. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1984.

Haddon, A., and James Hornell. "Canoes of Oceania." Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication vols. 1–3 (1938), p. 251.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 78.

The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 24.

Newton, Douglas. Massim: Art of the Massim Area, New Guinea. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1975, pp. 8–10.

Beran, Harry. An Exhibition of Art of the Massim Region of Papua New Guinea from Private Collections in New South Wales and Canberra: Wollongong City Gallery, Australia, 15 October–6 November 1980. Wollongong: Wollongong City Gallery, 1980, no. 66, p. 11.

Munn, Nancy D. The Fame of Gawa. A Symbolic Study in Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Newton, Douglas. African and Oceanic Art in Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2001.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, no. 72, pp. 118–19.

Damon, Frederick H. Trees, Knots and Outriggers: Environmental Knowledge in the Northeast Kula Ring. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016.

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