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Arts of the South Pacific

The collection of art from the islands of the South Pacific Ocean—including New Zealand and Australia—demonstrates how the presence of the sea has shaped these peoples and their art.

Male Ancestor Figure
19th-20th century

26 ¾ x 5 ¾ x 8 ¼ inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, & the Americas

Arts of the South Pacific

For the people of Nias, ancestors played a vital role in daily life. Ancestors created the world and affected the fertility and fortune of the living. This refined ancestor figure, in a seated position and grasping a cup with both hands, is from North Nias. The adornments are markers of nobility.  

Nias is a small island of Indonesia. As in many cultures of Indonesia, gold was a symbol of wealth and high status. Religious ceremonies were held to consecrate gold objects, bestowing titles and status upon the owner. The more gold objects commissioned, the greater the owner's status. Unique among Indonesian societies, the people of Nias melted their old jewelry to make new. This tradition symbolized the cycle of death and rebirth.

Gold versions of his crown and earring were commissioned to be worn at major feasts. The necklace of polished coconut disks identifies this figure as a warrior. The mustache and beard represent gold ornaments that clean-shaven nobles wore at special ceremonies. These sculptures, called siraha salawa, represent the founding ancestors of important lineages. Each noble household had only one sculpture of this kind, attached to a prominent post in the largest room in the house. The figure served as the supernatural protector of the home.