Craftmanship – cloth
Bark-cloth is prepared in all the Melanesian groups. Besides the paper mulberry, which is cultivated, the following trees supply the bast: Ficusprolixa, F. tinctoria, and Artocarpus incisus. The loom is unknown; the woven stuffs from New Guinea found in our collections seem to be a Malay importation. In New Guinea they merely beat soft the bast stripped off the india-rubber tree; but Fiji produces pieces 150 yards long, of stuff coloured in patterns, by means of the blocks shown at `The more easterly islands’. It is hard to say how far to the westward the Polynesian and Fijian method of preparing tapa extends, since it is an article of trade. In New Britain the tapa is thicker, and obviously more coarsely manufactured; nor is it printed, but painted, so that, as in New Guinea, the patterns are larger and more continuous throughout the stuff, from being drawn and not impressed. The use of a rule, too, permits the designing of wonderfully regular squares.
Craftmanship – plaiting
The art of plaiting is diligently practised. For the coarser mats coco-nut fibre is employed; for the finer, pandanus leaves and rushes. An intelligent Fijian can always tell you from which island a mat came. The coarser kinds are used as floorcloths and hangings to the huts; the finer as sails, or sleeping-mats, or for children. Floor-mats are 5 to 8 yards in length, sail-mats 100 and more. Sleeping-mats are of two kinds – a thicker to lie on, and a thinner for covering; one of the most valued sorts has a pleat running through the middle of each strip of plaiting. Borders are worked on with designs in darker bands; white feathers and scraps of European stuffs are woven in. One of the prettiest productions of the art is the women’s liku, a girdle woven from strips of the bast of the wau-tree (a kind of hibiscus), with the fibres of a root that grows wild, and blades of grass. Soft mats are made by plaiting the stalks of a fibrous plant into one, and removing the woody portions by bending and beating. Bags and baskets are admirably woven; fans, too, are made either of palm leaves strengthened at the edge and vandyked, or woven from bast. But superior to all these are the string and the cables – the best from coco-fibre, the inferior kinds from the bast of the wau-tree. In the Fiji Islands these are tastefully made up into balls, ovals, spindles, etc. Comparison with New Caledonia shows how high East Melanesia stands in this art. One has only to look at a New Caledonia fan beside one from Fiji. But in New Guinea, again, very elegant woven articles of all kinds are produced.
Craftmanship – Wood-carving
Wood-carving again, of which we have seen specimens in the weapons, stands highest in East Melanesia, though the west can also [as seen in the image above] show remarkable work. Individual districts are poor in this respect: in the Banks Islands, for instance, hardly any carved human figures are to be seen. All the larger groups have their own subjects. The most wonderful fancy is shown in the appendages to houses and boats. In these simple artists there is a strong tendency to pass from imitation of Nature to conventionalised forms, so that this imitation is never very successful, especially where, as in Fiji and the New Hebrides, the human form is so rarely copied. One may see this in the representations of the human face, in which the nose appears as a line, falling downwards and forwards from the projecting forehead, with strongly distended nostrils, and ending in the mouth, a cross line sharply cut back. In some New Guinea masks this evokes a reminiscence of Ganesa and his proboscis. In Fiji this fancy is fused with the far better proportioned geometrical designs of Tonga. In San Christoval figures are better drawn than anywhere else, and in Isabel we find really artistic engraved work. We may notice also one characteristic production of Melanesian art: the ever-recurring grotesque heads of the New Caledonians. The carved head with large nose and a kind of bishop’s mitre on the top, [as shown on the right,] is a type which we find in a larger form by itself, as an idol. This religious sculpture shows a close affinity with idols from other parts of the South Seas, in connection with which we may recall the resemblance of the spear-heads to the knobstick of the Hervey Islanders as shown in the plate of “Polynesian Clubs.”
To the same branch of art we may refer the carved wooden masks. These are often trimmed round the lips with red beans, and fitted with wigs of real hair; and are carried at dances, dressed in feather clothing. All these carvings are executed with firm, strong cuts in palm wood. Lines in relief are coloured black, the general level red, and depressed parts are white. From New Ireland come examples of masks made by sawing off the face of a skull, just as in Peru; and with these are connected the ruddle-painted skulls of New Britain. The flexible tortoiseshell was formerly the favourite material in south-eastern New Guinea and in the Torres Islandsfor masks with wild arabesques and appendages like trunks and combs. Still earlier, indeed, it was much more worked, being used even for hats; now they have got to use tin masks in New Guinea, where formerly, in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Landparticularly, a vigorous style in masks used to prevail, corresponding with that of the carved woodwork generally.