This ceremonial paddle from Buka Island in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea is associated with the life cycle ceremonies and rituals of the highest-ranking chiefs. Its iconography refers to a recurring cycle of birth, life, marriage, death, and the passage to the afterlife.
Buka is home to two main clans: Nakaripa represented by the Kua (bush fowl) totem, and Naboen represented by the Manu (eagle) totem. The bush fowl cannot fly while the eagle can, so the Nakaripa own the land while the Naboen own the sky. The other two clans on Buka, who do not have their own territories are the Nakas, whose totem is the Kinon (a dingo-like dog which is now extinct on Buka Island), and the Natasi, with the totem of Popoei (seafoam). Bougainville is a matrilineal society in which land is owned by women and chiefly titles pass through the female line. The highest rank of chief is the Patu, a position that is considered equivalent to sacred beings. Nakaripa and Naboen each have a Tohe Kau Mal (female paramount chief) and her brother, the Tsunono Mal (male paramount high chief). The second in line to the chiefs fulfils the role of voice, or knowledge holder, and acts as the bridge between the chiefs, clan members and the general public. The information about this paddle was provided to the Metropolitan Museum by curator Sana Reana Balai, voice of the Nakaripa kabe kabe golehe clan.
The anthropomorphic designs on this paddle are known as kokorra, which is also a name given to the decorated ceremonial paddles themselves. Both faces of the paddle decorated with low relief carvings of kokorra in the colors of red, black and white. Their squatting pose is seen in representations of kokorra on other ceremonial paddles and dance clubs. The kokorra figure represents a fetus (koreritu) a symbol of creation and journeys in life. The figures on both sides of the paddle wear upe (head adornments), which on Bougainville are worn by young male initiates. On Buka, the upe is worn by the male chief during the mourning ceremony and ritual for a Paramount Chief who had passed on. On this paddle, the figures with the red-colored upe represent the living, while the figures with the black colored upe represent the dead or ancestors. The overall design composition on this paddle therefore refers to the creation of life, and the passage to Kolu, the land of the ancestors. According to local belief, when a chief is ready to die two eagles will fly above the village, giving that chief permission to pass through the sky as he/she travels to Kolu.
Such paddles would be used in several ceremonies on Buka. During a sole (wedding ceremony), the paddle would be held by the bride as she is carried to meet the family of her future husband. If the marriage is accepted, the bride passes the paddle to her aunt on her mother’s side, who keeps it until the bride falls pregnant, at which time the paddle would be placed at the at the front of the woman’s house to announce the pregnancy. It is then kept in a tsuhana (clan meeting house). When the chief dies the paddle will be placed on her grave to gradually decay, completing the life cycle of the carving.
Many of the ceremonial paddles that survived in the villages were destroyed in the ten year civil war in Bougainville during the 1990s, so those that are held in museums are among the only surviving examples. Bougainville, also known locally as North Solomons Province is currently campaigning for independence from Papua New Guinea.