Lot 10
  • 10

Vanuatu Slit Gong, Vanuatu

30,000 - 50,000 USD
161,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood


Merton D. Simpson, New York
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above on either September 20, 1981 or December 8, 1986

Catalogue Note

The towering figural slit gongs of central Vanuatu are among the largest of all Oceanic sculptures, and according to Eric Kjellgren (2007: 176) are indeed "among the largest musical instruments on earth."  The stylized human torsos which form the finials of these gongs represent mystic ancestors, with large disk-shaped eyes gazing down at the living viewer, which were painted in dazzling, colorful spiral designs.  Kjellgren continues (ibid.: 176-177): "In their basic form, slit gongs are hollowed, or partially hollowed, cylinders of wood with a narrow longitudinal opening, or slit, whose edges are struck to produce a deep, sonorous tone.  When stood on the village dancing ground, the gongs tower over the percussionists who, seated or standing, strike the lip of the gong with clublike softwood mallets.  In major villages a number of gongs, consituting a sort of informal orchestra, stand on the dancing ground.  These gong orchestras are played at all major social and religious events, such as grade initiations, funerals, and dances.  When several gongs are played simultaneously, rhythms of immense variety and complexity can be produced by the carefully coordinated actions of multiple percussionists.  In the rugged, mountainous terrain of many of the islands, slit gongs were, and in some cases still are, used to communicate between villages.  Under proper atmospheric conditions, their sound can carry for miles through the surrounding forest, and, in rare instances, across the water to neighboring islands.  A complex series of local "gong languages", consisting of a system of beats and pauses, enables highly specific messages to be sent rapidly to distant locations."

The elegant abstract design of the gong-figure merges the fuctional form of the instrument with the spiritually significant image of an ancestor.  Describing a comparable gong in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which today stands in the center of the Melenesia Gallery in that museum, Kjellgren (ibid.) notes: "The eyes sit above a prominent, pierced nose through which sprays of leaves were once inserted as ornaments.  The face is surrounded by rows of concentric toothlike projections, representing the hair (hingiye) and small arms and spiral motifs depicting sacred pigs' tusks appear on either side.  The long vertical slit represents the mouth (tute), from which the ancestor's "voice" emerges as sound whenever the gong is played."