Among the Big Nambas people of northwest Malakula Island in Vanuatu, the center of male social and religious life is, or was, the men's ceremonial house (amèl), which served as a meeting place and for the storage of sacred objects. The peak of the towering triangular facade of the amèl was adorned with a gable ornament (p'naret) carved from fern wood (the fibrous trunk of a tree fern composed of aerial roots surrounding a woody core). Portraying the face of the founding ancestor of the amèl, the p'naret was mounted horizontally, allowing the ancestor to gaze down at the entrance. As each man entered or left, he was scrutinized by the ancestor, who could inflict supernatural punishment on individuals unauthorized to enter or who had committed violations of customary law.
The ancestral faces on the p'naret are highly stylized, with the upper and lower portions compressed and the central section greatly enlarged. A central vertical ridge representing the nose is flanked by large triangular nostrils. Protruding cheekbones, often mistaken for eyes by Western observers, appear above the nostrils and the eyes are reduced to small lozenge shapes incorporated into the brow ridge.
[John J. Klejman, New York, until 1960]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1960, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1960–1978
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