Canoe Figurehead (Nguzu Nguzu, Musu Musu, or Toto Isu)

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Solomon Islands, New Georgia Island possibly, Western province

Culture: New Georgia Island (?)

Medium: Wood, paint, shell

Dimensions: H. 5 1/2 x W. 4 1/2 in. (14 x 11.4 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of Morris J. Pinto, 1976

Accession Number: 1976.351


Essential to transportation, fishing, and warfare, canoes in the western Solomon Islands were formerly lavishly adorned. The centerpiece of the prow was a distinctive figurehead, known variously as a nguzu nguzu, musu musu, or toto isu. Attached at the waterline so that it dipped in the sea as the canoe rode the waves, the figurehead reportedly served as a supernatural protector ensuring safe passage and a successful expedition.

The images on the figureheads are typically busts depicted with large heads and circular ear ornaments and small arms with the hands raised to the chin or clasping a smaller head or bird. The jutting jaws of the images were reportedly attributes of spirits and the figureheads are sometimes said to depict, or, alternatively, afford protection from, dangerous sea spirits known as kesoko.