figure (ritual & belief: representations)

Ancestral image of a deceased senior man incorporating his skull in a constructed body. The skull has been deformed through head-binding in childhood and is over modelled with a matrix of coconut fibre shreds and clay. Only one eye remains in place, which is constricted from the opercula of a Turbo shell. The body is constructed from bamboo sections overlaid with bark cloth, a putty of coconut husk shreds and clay and a binding of pandanus leaf strips. The skull is tied onto the neck with an arrangement of rope. The entire outer surface has been painted with a blackened layer of Parinarium gum. This gum layer was modelled at the shoulders into pig like faces, and it is likely that false tusks of shell were formerly inserted there also. The chest is over painted with four sets of concentric rings. The hands are constructed from slats of bamboo bound into the wrists with the above materials. The figure has an erect penis and testicles formed from three small bundles of barkcloth bound together with coconut fibre. The figure wears a grass skirt and a thick bangle cut from a length of bamboo.

Effigy of a Deceased Senior Man, Rambaramp, Malakula, Vanuatu As elsewhere in Vanuatu, men in southern Malakula traditionally invested a lot of time and energy working to progress upwards through a system of exclusive graded rank societies. On Malakula, this involved carving tree-fern and stone sculptures, and performing various other kinds of labour and service. Towards the end of a man’s life, his high-graded rank made him more and more tabu (dangerous for lesser men to come into contact with): he was already closer in kind to his own great, deceased ancestors than his descendents or lesser contemporaries. When he died, therefore, he was assured of a permanent place in the men’s house, and this was achieved by manufacturing him a rambaramp image to stand up there with the others. In the same way that Christian reliquaries contain the physical remains of particular saints, once the flesh had come off his bones, the man’s skull was taken and incorporated into a life-size statue. This was over-modelled with a mixture of finely chopped coconut husk fibres and clay, into which were set two cream-coloured operculae (‘doors’) of Turbo shellfish to act as eyes. The body is constructed from a simple scaffold of bamboo sections, tied together with coconut-fibre cordage and wrapped about the chest with long strips of Pandanus leaf. This structure was then covered with a thick layer of ‘putty-nut’ paste (Parinarium laurinum), which was modelled at the shoulders into the formerly-tusked faces of pig-man hybrids on the shoulders. This surface was covered with a final layer of paint in a complex design of concentric circles. These features (the pig-men and the body paint) are the insignia of the man’s graded rank at the time of his death. The figure may have originally possessed a wig of hair and more colourful painting. Its fibre skirt is not an original part of the rambaramp, but was added at some point in time in order to permit its display in London. Under the skirt, the figure has an erect penis and testicles modelled in barkcloth, which symbolised his mana (power and efficacy). Human bone, bamboo, Pandanus leaf, coconut fibre, clay, Parinarium paste, shell, charcoal, mineral pigment. Mid-19th Century. Formerly in the private collection of Dr Alexander Hastings-Stewart.

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