Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Ancestral Effigy (Rambaramp)
In many Pacific Island cultures, the head is considered the seat of the soul.
It is considered the most powerful part of the body and is often preserved as a relic after death. Among Solomon Islanders, for instance, fish-shaped reliquaries are created to house the skulls of important male ancestors. In Vanuatu, an archipelago near New Guinea, the skulls of the dead become the central component of life-size effigies called rambaramp.
After death, the skull was removed, modeled over with clay, and attached to a surrogate body created out of bamboo, clay, and plant fibers. Although there is debate over whether the rambaramp was intended to be a physical likeness of the individual, people in the community would have recognized the identity of the figure through patterns painted on the skull and body. These patterns were associated with the status of the deceased. Rambaramp were created only for men and only for those of the highest rank, usually chiefs or warriors.
Once completed, the rambaramp would be set up in the men’s house. By offering a place for the spirit to reside, the figure facilitated the continuing presence of the ancestor, who would, in turn, ensure the well-being of the community. Because they were made largely of vegetal materials, the bodies of the rambarampwould eventually decay. However, the skull—the most vital part of the figure—would continue to serve as a representative of the ancestor long after the body was gone.
Bonnemaison, Joel, ed. Arts of Vanuatu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Kjellgren, Eric. “Ancestor Effigy (rambaramp).” In Recent Acquisitions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/318742 (2000).