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The following information refers mainly to the collection of ethnographic and tribal art found at the Martin Gallery of Tribal arts. The gallery collection has a large selection of objects from Oceania including  Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, New Britain, Trobriand Islands, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Fiji Islands Some of this information was obtained from the carvers, dancers, or cultural groups by the gallery owner, Jerry Martin, while, he was on the islands collecting art.


The Ethnographic and tribal arts of Oceania, including, Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, New Britain, Trobriand Islands, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands.

Oceania refers to a large area of the Pacific Ocean and includes Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  Altogether there are literally thousands of islands. The majority of Martin Gallery’s ethnographic or tribal arts collection comes from Melanesia and was field collected between 1965 and 1987.  Melanesia means the black islands as the indigenous people are dark skinned. Melanesia includes New Guinea which is the second largest island in the world. It is believed that New Guinea Island was first populated over 40,000 years ago. The other major islands of Melanesia include the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formally called the New Hebrides) New Caledonia and the Fiji Islands


Papua New Guinea  

New Guinea is a vast island with tall mountains and many valleys that helped to create a large number of isolated cultures speaking approximately 1075 different languages. Wonderful ethnographic art is found throughout many parts of the island but some the most artistically impressive areas include; the Sepik River, the Abelam and Maprik areas, Papuan Gulf, Tami Island, Siassi Islands, Trobriand Islands, New Ireland, New Britain, Lake Sentani and the Asmat.  Each of these areas has a distinctive recognizable style. The people in the Sepik area have been creating tourist art for many years while most of the other areas still make many of the items to be used first and then sold if and when it is possible.


Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

The Sepik River snakes for nearly 750 miles from the mountains of central New Guinea to the Bismarck Sea making it one of major rivers of the world. The villages and cultures living along this river are a major source of traditional ethnographic artwork.



The large Sepik River ceremonial houses, called “Haus tambaran” are works of art in themselves with beautifully carved house posts, and interior decorations full of carved clan symbols. These structures are used to house their spirit or ancestor carvings, dance masks, talking stools, slit gong drums, sacred flutes and a host of other traditional objects. The “Haus Tambaran” is considered a woman with the façade her face and the building her body, so a large gable-mask is found above the entrance. The ceremonial items inside are considered male, thus the male objects are stored inside the female. This integration is said to help overcome the Male/female conflict and segregation which is common in their culture.

  Sepik River Gable mask


Canoe prow, Sepik River, PNG   #1984.02.019


Many of the canoes used along the river have beautifully carved prows. Carved crocodile heads are the most common prows seen in the Sepik, but sometimes birds and other animals are found. Carved hooks hang from rafters to keep food and other items safe from animals and in the old days skull racks displayed the skulls of ancestors or slain enemies. Most everything they make including tools and utensils are often carved or decorated with some form of artwork.



Abelam, Papua New Guinea

The Abelam people live in the Maprik region near the Prince Alexander Mountains overlooking the vast Sepik River Basin of New Guinea.


The Abelam are known for their large, elaborate and beautiful “haus tambarans”, Tumbuan baba” (basketry masks), Nggwalndu" (1983.02.021) (wooden ancestral spirit figures) and yam cults. To the Ablelam people, yams are considered images of their ancestors, so during the harvest ceremonies they decorate them with intricate and colorful basketry face masks called Babamini”  (1987.01.051). They are also known for their distinctive colorful figures and faces painted on the facades and interiors of their ceremonial houses and ancestor figures.



Tambunan Basketry Mask,   Abelam, PNG #1965.01.002


Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea

The Papuan Gulf region is a vast area located on the southern coast of New Guinea on the Gulf of Papua.  The area to the west is a tidal swamp with many tidal mangrove forests while to the east the land is flat and sandy.  The Papuan Gulf's central and eastern interior slowly rises to meet the Southern Highlands, and contains a variety of inland swamps and dense tropical hardwood forests. The area contains a number of different cultures including the Purari, Elema, Toaripi, Urama and Gope.


Keveke Mask, Papuan Gulf

PNG #1987.01.155


The Papuan Gulf is especially known for its many varieties of large tapa (bark cloth) or wicker basketry masks and their carved “gope” boards.

The tall oval Keveke” is another special mask which is found from Urama Island east into the Elema area. They may have derived from sacred bull-roarers or from “gope boards which are carved from wood. The function of Keveke masks varies from area to area as some represent ancestor spirits while others are warriors.



“Gope boards” are commonly referred to as carved ancestor or spirit boards. The boards are made from wood with incised designs and painted with natural pigments. The designs often contain a face surrounded by fairy abstract designs. The boards vary in size from 12 to 18 inches up to over 6 feet. They have a number of different functions depending on the culture where they were made.  Most all important boards were named. The most sacred were the large named boards owned by the clan and were used to help give them power and protection. Smaller named boards were often placed at the entrance of ceremonial houses for protection.  Small unnamed boards were often used by young boys and uninitiated men to give them strength.

Gope Board, Papuan Gulf, PNG #1985.03.003


The Tami and Siassi Islands, Papua New Guinea

The Tami and Siassi Islands are two small island groups located between New Guinea’s northeast coast and the southwestern tip of New Britain. Even before European contact both island groups were known for their beautiful wooden bowls, incised tortes shell jewelry and ceremonial masks.


Bowl, Siassi Island, PNG  #1987.01.057


The distinctive “Tago masks” (1987.01.056) from Tami Island are made from bark cloth, rattan and feathers and worn during initiation and circumcision ceremonies. Some Tago spirits, who are addressed as, Lord, are said to live in holes in the island while others come from neighboring islands. These masks are kept in huts in the bush where women and children cannot see them. Siassi bowls (link to bowl1987.01. 057) come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are often boat shaped with incised designs and relief carving along the rim and on the bottom. Though sometime the wood is left natural, often the bowls are blackened with charcoal and lime is rubbed into the incised designs.



Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea


The Trobriand Islands, now officially known as the Kiriwina Islands, consist of a number of low coral atolls located about 170 miles off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. Most of the population lives on the four major islands of Kiriwina, Kaileuna, Vakuta and Kitava. The people are mainly subsistence horticulturalists and have maintained many of their cultural traditions.


One very important tradition they have maintained is called the “Kula” where shell necklaces and bracelets are traded between traditional trading partners living on different islands.  Men construct large sea-going canoes decorated with beautifully carved splash boards called lagim” and prows called tabuya”. (1987.01.090). These canoes were traditionally painted with natural red, black and white pigments, but are now painted with enamel. Armbands "mwali" travel clockwise and are traded for necklaces "soulava" which travel counter clock wise around the kula ring route. Each time one of these objects is traded it increases its power and magic. The oldest and most traded objects can only be handled by the most powerful men with the highest social standing.  A less powerful man could be killed by its powerful magic.  
The Trobriand Islanders decorate most all of their ceremonial objects and many of their utilitarian items with carved designs. Some of their most impressive and collectible ethnographic art objects include, kula canoe parts, drums, betel
nut mortar and pestles, lime sticks, bowls, and dance wands.




Kula Canoe Lagim and Tabuya, Trobriand Islands, PNG #1987.01.090


New Ireland, Papua New Guinea

The island of New Ireland is Papua New Guinea’s largest province.   It is narrow and approximately 225 miles long, covered by several mountain ranges and dense rainforests. The province also contains a number of small outer islands including, Tabar, the home of the famous “Malagan” carvings of New Ireland. 




Malagan named Totokgur, New Ireland, PNG,  # 1987.01.033



Malagan carvings are made to be displayed during mortuary ceremonies held for one or more people who have died in the past few years. They take place irregularly, and are typically large and complex events that go on for several days.  A structure is built resembling a stage on which to display the carvings with a front curtain to hide them from view.  During the ceremony the people gather from all over to enjoy a great feast. At the climax of the ceremony the front curtains are taken down and people see the stage full of malagan carving that were made to honor the deceased. Each malagan is named and the design is owned by a particular family. The more important the deceased the more carvings displayed. There are also two important types of masks used in New Ireland. One mask called, tatanua, comes from central and northern New Ireland Island. It is named after the mortuary dance in which it is used. Though the masks are superficially similar in appearance, there are many variations reflecting the wide range of associations and meanings which they have. A group of men wear the masks and perform the dance away from women. The masks are preserved between performances, to be rented out by one of the few remaining skilled carvers. The second famous mask tradition is the Mamatua found in Northern New Ireland. These are ceremonial masks used in solemn mortuary rituals, initiation ceremonies for children entering adulthood and in the ritual installation of young men as new leaders. Mamatua masks have cylindrical wooden heads topped with hair made from a yellow fiber. Their most identifying feature is its two large ears which often terminate in a loop at the bottom.



New Britain. Papua New Guinea

New Britain is a large volcanic island off the northeast coast of New Guinea. Many of the volcanoes are still active. The provincial capital city of Rabaul was destroyed in 1994 by an eruption and the capital was moved to nearby Kokopo.



Among the most dramatic masks found in New Guinea are the Baining fire dance masks.  The Baining people live on the northeastern tip of New Britain in a mountainous tropical forest environment. These masks are large almost comical looking objects made from bark cloth stretched over a rattan frame. There are both day dances and night dances. The night dances are very dramatic as the men dance around a huge bonfire. The men’s nearly naked bodies seem to glisten in the firelight as they run through the flames or kick at the coals to throw up big showers of sparks. The dances are held to create prestige, to bring villages together and create obligations of reciprocity.



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The Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands is a country in Melanesia, east of Papua New Guinea, consisting of a double chain of seven larger islands and over 900 smaller volcanic islands, coral atolls and reefs. There are more than 300 inhabited islands in the Solomon’s chain. Most of the larger islands have had a great deal of outside influence and have lost much of their traditions and related art. During a collecting trip in the 1980’s traditional ceremonials and objects were still being used on a number of Islands including Santa Catalina, Santa Ana, Malaita and Santa Cruz. Some of these islands still had “Bonito or Custom Houses” where they kept the bones of their ancestors.  Although there are many islands, the art of the Solomon’s is fairly homogeneous and have a similar artistic style. Common characteristics include the use of shell inlay on blackened wood, with designs of painted or carved fish, spirit figures and human heads. Some of the most important objects found are feast or spirit bowls, paddles, dance paddles, shell and tortoise shell body ornaments, “Kapkaps”, shell money and the famous feather “touau” money rolls of Santa Cruz.


Solomon Islands spirit food bowl #1987.01.169


 When important people died they are buried, later their bones are dug up, cleaned and placed in the Bonito House.  The skulls of lesser chief are place in wicker baskets while those of more important men are placed in carved fish. The bones are placed in miniature carved bonito canoes.  Small nicely carved bowls are kept filled with food, tobacco and other items as offerings to the ancestor spits.  In Santa Catalina they were preparing for the major final ceremony to finish the mortuary rituals and place grave stones over the graves. This ceremony can take years to prepare. They must build a new elaborate ceremonial house, carve many large “pudding bowls”, grow an abundance of food and gather many pigs for the feast. “Pudding bowls” #1987.01.0168 are very large, up to 10 to 12 feet long, and used to hold a fermented pudding made from boiled cassava (similar to a sweet potato) mixed with coconut milk then served with fish. Smaller versions of the bowls are made for the guests to carry home food from the feast.



Touau, the Santa Cruz feather money rolls are composed of a long spiraling coil of woven fibers decorated with the scarlet head and breast feathers of the red breasted honey bird. The roll ends in two coils of bark and is decorated with a number of shell strands.  This rare object is a very important exchange object among the Santa Cruz people and is normally

Touau feather money roll

Santa Cruz Island, Solomon Islands,



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Nguzunguzu canoe prows are the carved heads of war gods that are placed at the water line of a war canoe. They help to keep the seas calm and protect the canoe from enemies, evil water spirits, sand bars and many other hazards. They are stained black and have shell inlay to match the canoe.



The island nation of Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides until 1980. Vanuatu is an island archipelago consisting of approximately 82 relatively small islands of which 65 of them are inhabited. Some of the larger islands include; Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Ambrym, Tanna and Pentecost.  Most of the islands are volcanic with steep slopes and not very suitable for agriculture.

Traditional customs remain strong in many of the islands. Pigs remain a symbol of wealth especially those where the tusks make a complete circle.  Most villages have a “nakamal “or ceremonial house where men meet, gossip, drink kava and plan ceremonies. Young men still undergo various initiation or coming-of-age ceremonies and circumcision to become adult members of the group. The people on the central islands of Malakula and Ambrym practice a complicated graded social system.  Men can advance up the ladder of social grades by gathering and exchanging circular boar’s tusks and by their individual efforts and leadership abilities. Each level is associated with particular privileges, dance costumes, adornments and other symbols of rank.  Many of the most sought after Vanuatu ethnographic art objects are associated with this social grading system.


Ambrym Island, Vanuatu


On Ambrym Island large human like carvings called, “mague” or mangeni “taurr”, are carved from the trunk of tree ferns. Each social level has its own design.  The men call the guests to come to ceremonies by beating a slit gong drum call, a-ting-ting” or “tamtam”, which are tall wooden hollow logs with a slit down the side. The top of the drum is carved into resemble a stylized human face. Ritual pig killing clubs called, atata”, are carved to be used to kill pigs for ceremonial feasts.  


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Malakula Island, Vanuatu

Temes Seffel, Malakula, Vanuatu #1987.01.208

The island of Malakula is known for their, “temes” sculptures, which are figures usually carved out of tree fern trunk, wrapped with a fiber material or spider webs, then coated with mud and painted. These figures were traditionally used during circumcision ceremonies inside a sacred enclosure called, amal.  Many of the “temes” are named, nevember, which is the sacred spirit that finalizes the boy’s change into manhood. They are placed on bamboo poles in the ground inside the sacred, amal, surrounded by a high bamboo fence to protect them from the sight of women and the uninitiated. The temes” figures are now used in a number of ceremonies including funeral rituals where they are used to attract and guide the spirits of the dead.