In June 2004 the National Gallery of Victoria was given a superb contemporary La-sisi malagan canoe created in 1999 by the master carvers Edward Salle (born 1939) and his son Mathew Salle (born 1969) of Tatau Island of the Tabar Islands in the New Ireland Province of Papua New Guinea. Work of Edward and Mathew Salle is featured as the centrepiece of the Renzo Piano designed Tjibaou Museum in New Caledonia and now also stands in the NGV Oceanic Gallery.
The La-sisi malagan canoe (cemetery canoe) is a custom carving belonging to the place mat mat (cemetery). The name of this type of carving is pokves which means a bundle of paddles. The malagan and style of execution is entrusted to the master carver for the ceremonial feast. He undertakes to produce the malagan for the families who are the owners of the designs. Malagan is a word from the Madar language with various meanings. It refers both to objects that are powerful and colourful and also to feasts where sacred objects are displayed and cultural wealth and experiences are shared.
The Malagan canoe formed part of a display of malagans at a time when the chief of the Kuk clan conducted an initiation ceremony. The canoe was carved for a malagan custom ceremony commemorating the lives of two deceased brothers, in which their families participated in a tutono (last feast of dead men) which takes place two to three years after death. On completion of the ceremony, it used to be a practice, prior to European contact, to destroy the images or leave them to rot as their purpose could not be fulfilled until they were gone.
The figures in the canoe represent the two deceased brothers from the one family – Jeffrey Lingle and Anton Kombeu – both of Sos village, Tatau Island. It is customary law that the older of the two brothers must be seated at the back of the canoe with the responsibility of looking after the younger during the journey to their final resting place. The first paddler has the leaf-totemic design and the paddle has the fish-fin design. Also present are designs which represent the pig – called kolti bor. The top crown on the head represents feathers and is called or. The figures at the bow and the stern are called mu, meaning protector or watchman of the canoe.
The Malagan canoe and its figures represent an ancestral migration and a claim to particular land. The head at the bow and the stern of the canoe is that of the spirit fish called vardahl which lives in the bush, rivers and sea. They can take various forms which might include the physical characteristics of humans and/or animals, or of several animals at once. The vardahl has boar’s tusks and a long tongue which suggests a snake’s or lizard’s tongue. Along the side of the canoe are banded aralawizi, sea snake (Leticuada columbrina), with elalelilio, flying-fish (Exocoetidea spp.) on either side. The white petal-like forms between each set of snake and fish represent splashing water.
In February 2005 Mathew Salle honoured the NGV by performing a Vanis dance pattern for the Malagan canoe in the Oceanic Gallery to ensure that it was handed over according to malagan tradition. A Vanis dance pattern is performed as a peace offering ceremony to say goodbye, let go and hand over the canoe to those who will in return treat and respect it as their own.
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).