Melanesian Art: Reflections of the Creativity of the Pacific Ocean Dwellers

Melanesia is a fusion of two words ‘Mela’ which means ‘black’ and ‘nesia’ which means ‘islands’. Melanesia means ‘black islands’. It refers to the arts done by the black people in islands such as New Guinea, the dominant island, New Britain, Solomon’s island, New Caledonia, New Ireland and Fiji all in the Pacific Ocean. Their arts dates back to either 2000 BC or 3000 BC yet their arts have seen only a few changes in this modern age.

Among the Melanesians, political powers were vested in the hands of groups of elderly men and in some areas women. These elders usually referred to as ‘Big men’ handled the affairs of the people in a communal fashion. Such elders are renowned for their political, historical, economic and warrior skills. Power and position were earned through the acquisition of knowledge that allows one to advance in the society. This knowledge is imparted through the commemoration of several festivals and initiation rites during which various art forms are used.

The people believed in life after death. They also believed that all activities of this life are controlled by ancestral spirits. This includes agricultural activities like yam productions, fishing, hunting and trading of artifacts. Elaborate ancestral rites are performed to honour, praise and seek help from the ancestors. They were believed to facilitate the transition of the soul from the world of the living to the realm of the dead.

The Melanesians engaged in many art forms such as sculpture, painting, pottery, architecture, and basketry.

Male and female ancestral figures were sculpted and used in the mortuary and memorial rites of the dead in wood, clay, and stone. Sometimes ancestors’ skulls were over modelled with clay in a likeness of the deceased. The head of the carved figure may be made bigger to contain the skull of the deceased. These were used in the ancestral cults. Also, Ceremonial chairs, sacred flutes, and masks fashioned from soft wood, vegetable fibers and rattan were produced and worn by dancers during the ancestral cult (Tatanua masks) and initiation rites (Hevehe masks). Special yam masks were worn during the yam cult to petition the ancestors for a bumper harvest. Large carved slit-gongs were used as instruments for communication to the people and as voices of ancestral spirits in the initiation rites of young men.

Canoe prows shaped like crocodiles with images of humans, birds and serpents were carved with spells invoked on them to ensure successful fishing and trading of Kula (white conus-shell arm ornaments). Bisj poles which were extremely long poles were carved from the trunk of the mangrove tree and used in head-hunting ceremonies.

The people constructed massive men’s ceremonial houses that served as meeting houses for the local youth during initiation rites. Men’s discussions of community issues were carried out there. Communal meeting houses where the affairs of the community and among individuals are deliberated and settled were constructed.

Masks were painted in various colours and they had symbolic meanings. For example, the Tatanua masks used in the funeral rites of the deceased were painted with black, white, yellow and red. These colours symbolize warfare, magic spells, and violence. The interiors and exteriors of the ceremonial houses were lavishly painted with ancestral figures and animal forms which had spiritual charms. Body painting in the form of tattooing played a major part of their culture.

The Melanesians engaged in the production of a special type of pottery called Lapita which were elaborately decorated with incised and geometric patterns. These ceramic vessels were used in domestic chores such as storage of items and in keeping relics of ancestors during the ancestral


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What is the Significance of Art

Art is such a simple term but it is difficult to define. To a child, art is drawing and coloring. For celebrities, art is acting and entertaining. For designers, art is trend and fashion. The definition of art can be very objective.

Different sectors have their own definition of art. They have various standards too. For a mother, the drawings of her children are works of art. For museums, art is the genuine creation of a significant artist in the past.

Just like its definition, its significance also varies. There are various forms of art today, and each is important to the artist involved. A good example is a musician. Music is a good example of art. That is why singers are called artists. For a songwriter, each song has a story that he wants the people to hear. For most writers, this is very personal.

For various artists, art is way of expressing themselves. You may have seen an abstract oil painting, although you cannot recognize the patterns and strokes of the artists, it is very important for the painter. For him, it represents his emotion and his character. It can symbolize his anger and frustration. However, it can also represent his love and compassion. Anyone who sees it can also use it to represent how they feel. Strokes and colors can evoke certain emotions from other people. This is why most people want to buy pieces of artwork.

For others, it represents their dreams. The television today has produced several competitions that opened the doors for various dreamers. There are dancers across the country who lined up to audition because all their life they wanted to dance in front of an audience who appreciates what they can do. Many have gone to school to enhance their skills so that they can be among the best dancers in the world.

Like music, dancing is a form of art that can evoke various feelings. Aside from love, dances can also evoke sensuality, excitement, fun, passion, anger, and happiness. Art here is more than entertainment and talent. It is more of touching people lives through their moves and choreography.

Today, art also symbolizes comfort. You can see art in many beautiful and comfortable homes. Interior designers are also artists in many ways. They match things to provide a wonderful space for their client. Seeing the overwhelming reactions of their clients gives them satisfaction. To them, that is the most rewarding feeling.

Art has also transcended in foods. Many cooks and chefs have proven this. Some maybe predictable but others are like the abstract oil painting. You do not care what is in there as long as you like the taste. For them, being able to feed and satisfy their customers is all that matters.

Art is very significant in today’s generation. Since it has taken various forms, it has earned the respect of almost all the artists. Musicians respect their instruments. Painters respect their brushes, paints, and canvass. And, chefs respect their ingredients and utensils.

Art is significant because of the sense of fulfillment an artist feels every time he finishes a masterpiece.