Standing male figure

c. 1930–1950
Tree fern and pigment
Overall: 140 x 24 x 26 in. (3 m 55.6 cm x 60.96 cm x 66.04 cm)
Arts of the Pacific Islands
Arts of the Pacific Islands - Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Level 3
Dallas Museum of Art, anonymous gift
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

The republic of Vanuatu (former New Hebrides) is a chain of some seventy islands that extends for about five miles in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, southeast of New Guinea and northeast of mainland Australia. Vanuatu's significant art styles developed on the larger islands of Ambrym and Malekula and on the outlying Banks Islands, essentially in conjunction with the exclusively male secret societies (sukwe) that regulated almost all social life.

Members progressed through a series of grades, at considerable expense, thereby enhancing their status within the community and ensuring their rank and wellbeing after death. Each initiation required the sacrifice of pigs and the carving of commemorative sculpture. Columnar sculptures like this one are said to represent ancestor spirits, while the depiction of bodies and limbs is considered indicative of figures belonging to the secret societies. This figure originally stood before a men's ceremonial house, its body encased (and shielded) by vines, the head obscured by a large fern.

Like much of the sculpture of this area, the standing male figure is carved from the lower part of a tree-fern stem (inverted in the finished piece). This distinctive material consists of a wood core surrounded by an interlocking mass of fibers. Easily carved soon after cutting, the tree-fern hardens with age to become a very durable material. The porous surface, which does not permit refined sculptural detail, dictates the bold forms. Although the sculptures were often coated with a paste and painted, the paint rarely survives intact. The massive size of the head and the features—large disc eyes, prominent nose with pierced nostrils, and concave lower face—are characteristic of tree-fern sculptures.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, "Standing Male Figure," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 74.

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