Grade Figure

Banks Islands

Not on view

This is a singular example of a Banks Island suque society fern grade sculpture depicting a highly stylized figure. The figure is ingeniously carved from the thick network of aerial roots that are trained to form around the exterior of the fern tree’s fibrous core, creating a spongy texture ideal for carving. The main body of this carved figure is comprised of the front section of exposed aerial roots and the exposed wood trunk stands in for the figure’s backbone. The dominant feature of the figure is its highly animated body with highly abstracted facial features that are carved in low relief. The face is made up of a long, pointed oval decorated with a chevron pattern of neatly carved ridges that emanate out from a pair of raised eyes and flattened ears at its center. This large oval section is decorated with a pierced border. The liveliness of the highly animated body is conveyed by two pairs of long thin limbs that stretch out from behind the figure’s ears at the mid-point of the sculpture, creating a bold and unusual symmetry. These two sets of limbs bend at the half-way point to form two pairs of dramatically arched crescents that echo the oval head, and insinuate knees and elbows. These sets of limbs terminate in a pair of feet that join together beneath the pierced border of the figure’s chin, and a pair of clasping hands that reach up and over the head. Hewn from a single section of fern tree, this ingenious sculpture speaks to the innovation and sophisticated spatial sense of Banks Island carvers who create lively and dynamic figures from this highly textured material as part of the complex system of rituals that accompany an individual’s progression through the suque men’s society on the islands of Gaua and Vanua Lava in the Banks Islands of northern Vanuatu.

These highly stylized ancestral figures, carved from the fibrous trunk of the tree fern, were created in association with a hierarchical system of grade rituals known as suque that allowed an individual to advance in status and social standing. The suque society comprises four individual ranks or grades that function in tandem with two additional hierarchical ranking systems (the salagoro and kolekole) to create a highly complex and interrelated system that allows individuals to advance in honor and status. The creation of these art works accompanies a specific series of initiations, each of which confers increasing religious and political authority during an individual’s life, and more importantly, in the ‘after-life’ realm populated by the dead. Advancement through a single grade can take many years and requires increasing expense and effort to execute, with each initiate required to commission artworks and to distribute the wealth accumulated at each ritual grade ceremony gathering. This wealth is ritually presented in the form of prized tusker pigs, food, and traditional shell money known as som.

Tamate means "belonging to the dead" and an astonishing range of highly stylized carvings such as this example were created from a range of tamate figurative motifs that informed the design elements of each carved grade society figure. While these conform to a broad template, individual artists demonstrate their inventiveness and skill, expertly interpreting these motifs to create highly individualized and original examples of the genre. This is a particularly lively, and animated, example whose highly stylized figural form is embellished with intricately carved chevron motifs and circular loops which represent prized pig tusk wealth.

These specially commissioned sculptures continue to be carved today and are an important form of public monument that, along with drumming, performance and the ritual sacrifice of pigs (a highly valuable and vital component of ritual "currency"), signify that an individual is advancing towards the next level of graded men’s society. The ephemeral nature of the material from which these sculptures are carved make them extremely fragile, and the early collection date of this example makes this a rare, and extremely important, addition to our significant collection of mid-century art from Oceania. This example is one of seven Banks Island suque grade society figures carved from fern wood that were exhibited together in "Calder Crags and Vanuatu Totems" at Venus Over Manhattan gallery, New York (April 25–June 8, 2019).

Grade Figure, Fern wood, Banks Islands

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