Traditional Canoe Splashboards

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Canoe Splashboard

This element from a canoe is known as a splashboard; it is carved from a single piece of flat buttress root of a Ficus tree. Painted white, red and black. Intricately incised and decorated on one side only, and composed of a central shaft with two mirroring volutes that spiral out and down to either side.

Canoe splashboards are carved throughout the Massim in distinctive regional styles. They are material repositories of esoteric cognition that incorporate key elements of an otherwise-oral, immaterial system of knowledge.

Splashboards are customarily painted white, red and black. In the past, natural pigments would have been used: charred coconut husks mixed with water for black, a seed known as malaka in the Trobriand Islands for red, and chalk sourced in coastal areas, or the lime obtained from burning coral, for white. These are the same colors used in facial decorations in many islands in the Massim, establishing a parallel between people and the canoe, the splashboard being sometimes considered the “face of the canoe.”

Splashboards serve the purpose of beautifying the canoe and captivating onlookers when they arrive in the islands where the Kula ceremonial exchange takes place. The aesthetic qualities of well-executed canoe woodcarvings are believed to enchant Kula partners, “softening” their minds and making them surrender their Kula valuable shells. Splashboards also encompass a series of symbols or emblems with apotropaic qualities. They are said to ward off so-called flying witches (yoyowa in Kilivila) that prey on shipwrecked crews, impregnating the canoes with lightness and swiftness so as to make them faster and more seaworthy. The stylized birds carved onto the board are identified with the sea eagle: just as the sea eagle dives down to take its prey, so do tokula (Kula exchange partners) plunge upon Kula valuables. Another significant symbol found in the splashboard is the weku.

A hole at the center of the larger volute on the left of the splashboard, the weku stands for the voice of a bird that can be heard but cannot be seen, signifying the longing of the tokula for all the unattainable Kula shells that are known to circulate around the islands. The human-like figure on top of the splashboard is known in Kilivila as tokwalu to the uninitiated, although it is properly called bwalai by master carvers and their initiated apprentices. The bwalai must be spelled with the right magic by the canoe owner prior to a journey, in which case it will assist the crew if the canoe capsizes by summoning a giant fish that will take the sailors safely ashore. But if the magic used is not correct or if the canoe owner forgets to cast the spell, the bwalai will turn into a shark or a sea monster in the event of a shipwreck and devour the crew.

Technical Details

Stamp Size
40mm x 30mm
Souvenir
Sheet Size
90mm x 75mm
Sheetlet Size
90mm x 75mm
Denomination
1.60, 3.00, 5.00 & 6.90
Sheet Contents
25
Format
Vertical
Perforation
2mm
Colours
Full Colour Process
Paper
Turis-Russel Non-Prosphor
Gum
Unwatered Mark, PVA Gummed
Printing Technique
Multi-Colour Offset, Lithography
Designer
Banian Masiboda - Art Base Advertising
Issue Date
28th July, 2023
Withdrawal Date
28th July, 2024