Tamat (fern figure)
Republic of Vanuatu
On the Banks Islands in northern Vanuatu, a series of grade-taking rituals are performed over the course of a man's life to determine his rank within the 'suque' (also known as 'sukwe') or graded society. Not all men are able to attain the highest grade, as grade-takers must pay for all the connected rituals, dances and feasts using his accumulated wealth—in the form of lengths of stringed shell-money—and sacrifice pigs to a value proportionate to the rank being taken. Wealth is achieved through a man's ability to garner material and moral support from his community, achieved through demonstrating his own generosity, skill at public speaking and proving his leadership qualities.
'Big men' become 'fathers of tradition': those of high grade who are masters of traditional ritual and exchange and able to communicate directly with the ancestors. The highest ranks in the 'suque' require the grade-taker to have a figure—or 'tamat'— made from the hard-wearing tree fern, its form dependent on the codes of the particular grade level. The pest resistant tree fern is workable when fresh but hardens after it dries. Tree-fern figures are visual proof that an individual has gained a certain grade status.
The forms and details of this towering fern figure were carved for a specific purpose, and, although these remain unknown to us, the skill with with the artist has hewn the tree fern is readily apparent. Upon completion, the surface was possibly over-modelled with a vegetal-clay paste and painted with ochres, however, over time this fugitive medium would have washed away. A 'tamat' similar in form to this figure may be seen in a 1912 photograph taken on Gaua Island by Swiss ethnologist Felix Speiser. It is displayed in front of the home of a high-ranking man, accompanied by painted grade boards that indicate the owner's rank.
tree fern (Cyathea lunulata)
240.0 x 25.0 x 27.0 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Gift of Martin Browne 2020. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display