Tin Mweleun, Slit Gong (Atingting kon)

Tin Meweleun (commissioned by Tain Mal), Slit gong (Atingting Kon), 1960s, wood and paint, 175.2 x 28 x 23.5 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); speakers: Dr. Billie Lythberg and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] When you walk into the galleries devoted to the art of Oceania at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the entranceways leads you directly to an ensemble of slit drums from Vanuatu.

Dr. Billie Lythberg: [0:17] All three were made in the northern Ambrym Island, two of them made in the same village, Fanla. We have one whole slit gong, and then two of the finial tops that have been separated from the vertical gong structure itself.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] That’s a nice reminder that these musical instruments were meant to be played together. A slit drum would be commissioned, often by a senior person in the community, for a specific event, but then it would join older slit drums that had been made for other events.

Dr. Lythberg: [0:47] The central figure is 14 feet high. It was commissioned in the 1960s by the highest-ranking man in Fanla. He’s actually recognized as the creator of this piece, even though it was carved by a well-known carver from a nearby community.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] That’s precisely the opposite of the way we think of things, where the artist is a center of creativity and we don’t generally spend too much time giving credit to the person who paid for the object.

Dr. Lythberg: [1:11] We can see that it’s been carved from a single piece of wood, so quite a large tree has been used here. What’s interesting to me is that there’s a lightness about the figure despite the size of the piece of wood that’s been used.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] This is a massive tree trunk. It’s been hollowed out only through that tiny slit. You can imagine just how difficult it is and how thin the wall is. That’s essential in order to make this a percussive instrument.

[1:37] And this would be played by being beaten right at the edge of the slit with a drumstick; in fact, if you look at the surface, you can see that this has been well used.

Dr. Lythberg: [1:44] If we move now to look at the top, we can see that there’s this beautiful stylized face. Its eyes I find mesmerizing.

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] They’re amazing. They really focus our attention and seem to be animated.

Dr. Lythberg: [1:55] Part of what we’re reading as animation in the eyes is this painted detail, so we have a red pigment, we’ve got green. The black is circling the pupil.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] And a little bit of white as well.

Dr. Lythberg: [2:07] It looks like some white for some movement there.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] And if you look very closely, you can just make out the face would have been originally more brightly painted as a whole. I can see the left forehead is red and the right is green and then the nose and chin are reversed again.

Dr. Lythberg: [2:21] The museum records that these eyes are representing the morning star.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] The whole head is a lovely gentle concave form that seems to almost arc in and pushes towards us at the forehead and then down at the chin, so the whole shape is [a] large, almost spoon-like form.

Dr. Lythberg: [2:40] The face itself is framed by these concentric tooth-like projections. You can see at the bottom, beneath the little hands and arms, some spirals, and they’re representing the tusks of pigs.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] Now, pigs were important. They were animals that were used for sacrifice, but they were also gifted, and so these were animals that represent wealth.

Dr. Lythberg: [3:00] So, if we travel around to look at the back of the gong, we can see there’s a full human figure carved into the back of the head, with its lower legs extending down into what we might think of as the body of the instrument.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] I’m interested in the way that the knees both point out, which is a motif that’s fairly common in Oceanic art.

Dr. Lythberg: [3:18] The hands are upraised, so it looks like it’s possibly celebratory.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] In fact, the museum conjectures that this may be a reference to a particular ceremony which is known as the grade ceremony, which marks a moment when somebody ascends to a new level in the social hierarchy of the village.

[3:34] What this would refer to, then, is a man who would be standing on a high pedestal, celebrating this achievement by waving his hands like a hawk, but there’s the flip side.

[3:45] The village, to make sure he’s not too self-congratulatory, might throw some fruit at him just to remind him that in fact he had ascended to this position thanks to the help of many other people in the village.

Dr. Lythberg: [3:56] So this particular gong we can then safely assume was carved for a grade ceremony.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] I’m interested in what you said about the feeling of lightness here.

Dr. Lythberg: [4:05] There’s a delicacy to the way that the carving has been handled. The finial of this slit gong, that lovely space between the forearms, also the wonderful relief under the nose, it all has a sense of rising upwards, which is quite spectacular for an object this large.

[4:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Billie Lythberg and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Tin Mweleun, Slit Gong (Atingting kon)," in Smarthistory, November 21, 2021, accessed June 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/tin-mweleun-slit-gong/.