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Canoe Prow Ornament (Toto Isu)

Light and dark contrast created by white shell inlay against black wood is a hallmark of Solomon Islands art, and figures such as this one were standard features of war and fishing canoes in the Solomon Islands until the end of the nineteenth century. Sometimes large enough to accommodate more than thirty men, the canoes were built in a graceful crescent shape, with tall prows and sterns, and were decorated with shells, feathers, fiber, and sculpture. Customarily, the canoe prow ornaments are said to be protective, either shielding the canoe’s passengers from trouble at sea or safeguarding them from human enemies. Recent research also suggests that an ornament also may have served as a signal to a war party’s community about the outcome of a raid: if it were attached to the prow of the returning canoe, then the raid had been successful and the warriors were returning home unharmed.

New Georgia group, Solomon Islands
Canoe Prow Ornament (Toto Isu)
19th century
Wood, shell, pigment
H. 5 ¼ in. (13.3 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, 96.8