Malekula Island, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Melanesia, circa 1900
Wood, vegetable fiber paste, natural pigments, boar tusks, spider web
Height : 57 cm
Provenance : Alain de Monbrison, Paris
At times of important rituals, members of secret societies, such as nevimbur of central Vanuatu, animated these types of puppet heads from behind the community’s dancing-ground fence. Many of these ceremonies celebrated the attainment of higher status within the social and religious or- ganizations known as “grade-taking” societies. Merit rather than birth determines grade or rank within such societies. These puppets were called temes nevimbur.
When I first spotted this Malekula puppet through the window of Alain de Monbrison’s gallery I thought it was a Kanak mask from New Caledonia, with the typical “parrott’s beak” nose shape. The singularity of this object, the presence of this very particular nose, can be explained by the ge- ographic proximity between the two archipelagoes, distant of only 500 kilometers approximately. Yet, the meaning and purpose of this puppet remain a mystery as it is an unicum. But it clearly appears to be a very early, and probably the most striking example known.