Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Solomon Islands

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The Solomon Islands comprise a double chain of seven large and more than thirty small islands, located just east of New Guinea. The islands were named in 1568 by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña, who claimed that he had found the riches of King Solomon, or the biblical land of gold. The main islands, which are volcanic in origin, are Choiseul, Santa Isabel, Malaita, Roviana (New Georgia), Guadalcanal, Makira (San Cristobal), and Santa Cruz. The islands have an estimated population of 455,000. The island of Bougainville, located to the northwest of Choiseul, is geographically and ethnically a part of the Solomon Islands, but politically belongs to the nation of Papua New Guinea.


The art of the Solomon Islands is characterized by its intricate designs which utilize inlays of pearl shell. Traditionally, these artworks were either signifiers of status and prestige, or related to funerary rituals.


Among the most spectacular art forms from the Solomon Islands are woven wicker war shields (1978.412.730). These small, elliptical shields are constructed out of wicker and adorned with tiny squares of nautilus shell. The central design is commonly an elongated, anthropomorphic figure surrounded by abstract designs and disembodied faces. Only about twenty shields exist in collections today, all of which are believed to have originated from the Florida and Santa Isabel Islands, between 1840 and 1850. Due to their fragility, it is unlikely that these shields were actually used in combat. Instead, it is hypothesized that they were owned by high-status individuals and traded to Europeans as ritual gifts of exchange.


High-status individuals from the Solomon Islands also traditionally wore pendants (1999.47.21) or round chest ornaments known as kap-kaps (1979.206.1519). These were made from precious materials, such as turtleshell and giant clam shell, and worn to signify status and rank.


Unlike other parts of Island Melanesia, masks were rarely used on the Solomon Islands. Those that did exist were restricted to the northernmost islands (such as Nissan, Buka, and Bougainville), and typically made of bark cloth stretched over a cane frame (1978.412.1518). Unfortunately, little is known about these masks, but they were most likely used for funerals or other important ceremonial occasions.


Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, headhunting was considered by the Solomon Islanders as a necessary part of life that ensured the health and well-being of their community. Headhunting raids would utilize large, plank-built war canoes with crescent-shaped prows and sterns. Anthropomorphic canoe prow ornaments (1976.351) were standard features of the canoes. Positioned at the waterline of the vessel, these ornaments represented mythological spirits whose function was to ward off danger and ensure smooth seas. They were typically painted black and had shell-inlay designs depicting the face-painting designs used by warriors. These figures were also carved with protruding mouths, artificially elongated earlobes (a cosmetic practice in this region), and oftentimes held miniature heads as an allusion to their role in headhunting.


Canoe paddles (1978.412.1491) were also decorated with low-relief anthropomorphic figures, known as kokorra. These figures, depicted in a squatting position with raised hands, were believed to have supernatural powers. As such, they guaranteed the safety and success of their user, and were more than just decorative elements.

Emily Caglayan, Ph.D.
Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Map of the western Pacific showing the location of the Solomon Islands.