Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Canoe Splashboard (lagim)

early to mid-20th century
Papua New Guinea, Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province
Massim people
Wood, paint
H. 24 x W. 24 x D. 3 in. (61 x 61 x 7.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Cary Schneebaum, Jeff Schneebaum, and Randy Slakter, from the Tobias Schneebaum Collection, 2009
Accession Number:
Not on view
This element from a canoe is known as a splashboard; it is carved from a single piece of flat wood and painted white, red and black. Intricately incised and decorated on one side only, it is composed of a central shaft with two mirroring volutes that spiral out and down to either side. A series of curvilinear abstract designs and anthropomorphic motifs carved in low relief and openwork surround the splashboard’s painted register. Flanking each mirrored lobe are two stylized snakes, the one on the right painted red. Stylized birds project outwards from the mouth of each snake surmounting the outermost edge of the splashboard. The birds meet face-to-face roughly at the longitudinal center. Immediately beneath the point where these converge are two humanoid figures with vaguely suggested limbs and expressive faces.

Finely bored holes which perforate the perimeter of the splashboard at regular intervals would have allowed for the tying of small white cowrie shells (Ovula ovum) onto this exterior border which served both decorative and cosmological functions.

The Massim region of southeast Papua New Guinea is renowned for its ancient and ongoing inter-island exchange of shell valuables. Known as Kula, this ceremonial exchange is carried out in profusely decorated seagoing canoes carved from locally sourced trees. The most vital component of these decorative elements are the splashboards that close the dugout hull of the canoe on both ends, thereby preventing the canoe from taking in water during passage. Known as lagim in Kilivila (the language of the region within the Trobriand Islands where this piece is most likely from), splashboards are mounted with transversal wave splitboards that face forward. These are known as tabuya in Kilivila.

Projecting sideways from the prow of the canoe, a rich repertoire of motifs inhere in the complex carving style of these elaborated sculptural elements. Lagim and tabuya serve the purpose of beautifying the canoe and captivating onlookers when they arrive in the islands where the Kula ceremonial exchange takes place. The aesthetic qualities of well-executed canoe woodcarvings are believed to enchant Kula partners, “softening” their minds and making them surrender their Kula valuable shells. Splashboards also encompass a series of symbols or emblems with apotropaic qualities. They are said to ward off flying witches (yoyowa in Kilivila) that prey on shipwrecked crews, impregnating the canoes with lightness and swiftness so as to make them faster and more seaworthy. The snake emblem (mwata in Kilivila) is probably a symbol of the ancestral hero Monikiniki, considered by some matriclans in the Massim to be the initiator of the Kula exchange. The birds (susawila in Kilivila) are identified with the sea eagle: just as the sea eagle dives down to take its prey, so do tokula (Kula exchange partners) plunge upon Kula valuables.

Other, more abstract symbols are the weku and the doka. A hole at the center of one of the curving lobes, the weku stands for the voice of a bird that can be heard but has never been seen, signifying the aspiration of the tokula who will never obtain all the Kula shells that are known to circulate around the islands. The doka – the scroll-like patterns that curve away from the humanoid figures at the center-top – might represent the Nautilus pompilius, known for the logarithmic spiral pattern of growth of its shell, a symbol of the infinite growing potential of knowledge that accompanies the tokula and accrues with each expedition.

Especially noteworthy are the two humanoid figures at the top. Known in Kilivila as tokwalu to the uninitiated, the figures are properly called bwalai by master carvers and their initiated apprentices. The bwalai must be spelled with the right magic by the canoe owner prior to a journey, in which case they will assist the crew if the canoe capsizes by summoning a giant fish that will take the sailors safely ashore. But if the magic used is not correct or if the canoe owner forgets to utter the spell, the bwalai will turn into sharks and sea monsters in the event of a shipwreck and devour the crew. Bwalai are often represented either as a gendered or gender-neutral individual or as a male and female couple to signify the un-gendered qualities of spirit beings in the Massim.

Canoe splashboards are carved throughout the Massim region in distinctive styles roughly corresponding to the approach of carvers active in different groups of islands. They are material repositories of esoteric cognition that incorporate key elements of an otherwise oral, immaterial system of knowledge. Canoe and splashboard master carvers in the Trobriand Islands are initiated into a highly specialized and ritualized apprenticeship at a very early age. The apprenticeship lasts many years and includes learning magic spells and incantations, imbibing substances, as well as adhering to a very rigorous system of taboos that need to be observed in order to carve beautiful and efficacious splashboards (the two qualities being synonymous in Massim culture). Traditional master carvers are not allowed to draw on the wooden board they are to carve but need to incise the piece directly, using small pocket knives and repurposed pieces of iron to do it.

This splashboard appears to have been painted with Western commercial paint. In former times, natural pigments would have been used: charred coconut husks for black, a seed known as malaka in the Trobriand Islands for red and chalk sourced in coastal areas, or the lime obtained from burning coral for white. These are the same colors used in facial decorations in the Trobriand Islands, establishing a parallel between people and the canoe, the splashboard being the “face of the canoe” (migila waga).

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

Further reading

Gell, Alfred ‘The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology’ in Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds.), Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1994), pp. 40-63.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1922).

Scoditti, Giancarlo M. G. Kitawa. A Linguistic and Aesthetic Analysis of Visual Art in Melanesia. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter (1990).

Shirley E. Campbell. The Art of Kula. Oxford: Berg (2002).
Collected ca. 1973 in southeast Papua New Guinea by Tobias Schneebaum, New York, until (d.)2005; Randy Slakter, Cary Schneebaum, and Jeff Schneebaum, 2005–2009

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.

Scoditti, Giancarlo M. G. Kitawa: A Linguistic and Aesthetic Analysis of Visual Art in Melanesia. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.

Gell, Alfred. "The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology." In Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, edited by Jeremy Coote. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Campbell, Shirley F. The Art of Kula. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2002.

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