Slit Drum from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu

  • This 10-foot tall slit gong, or atingting kon in the local language, is a piece of Pacific culture
  • The stylized facial expression bears allegorical significance
  • Atingting kon are also essential components of indigenous ritual life
  • Musicians use them at social and religious events including initiations and weddings
  • Get complete item description here
Item No. 31-6261

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This 10-foot tall slit gong, called atingting kon in the local language, is characteristic of the ancestral craftsmanship of similar objects from Fanla village on the volcanic Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. Inextricably connected to the ritual life of the North Ambrymese people, slit drums such as this are visual and aural delights, totemic effigies laying at the intersection of aesthetics and utility.

The slit gong features an elongated head with large disk-like eyes with traces of red pigment and deep-set eyebrows. Rows of carved serrations, sometimes called “toothing,” crown the figure’s head to represent hair, and a curled motif beneath the mouth is meant to resemble the curved tusks of sacred tusker pigs that serve an essential role in the ritual sacrifice and exchange on the islands. These pigs’ lower tusks grow throughout their life, and those whose lower tusks form complete spiraling circles are believed to be particularly important. The use of this spiral tusk motif can be seen on the modern-day nation of Vanuatu’s flag and is a distinctive mark for atingting kon from the Fanla village.

Below the stylized “face,” the drum is formed by a long central slit to allow the hollow interior to reverberate sound. Carved from a single trunk of a breadfruit tree, these drums are considered to be the largest freestanding musical instruments on earth. The sound produced by the reverberating wood can carry for miles through the island’s dense forest, allowing communication between villages, or even between islands under the proper weather conditions. Apart from their ability to relay messages across vast expanses of land, atingting kon were also essential components of indigenous ritual life. Gong orchestras, comprised of multiple slit drums, stand at a village gathering place, and musicians use them to form the beat of social and religious events including initiations, weddings, funerals and dances.

These drums are true cultural treasures and examples of decorated drum styles can be seen on display in the National Museum of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in the capital, Port Vila, and at the Malakula Cultural Centre in Lakatoro. Beyond their revered status in the Pacific, these rare drums are prized by the world’s most prestigious museums. Similar drums are held in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum and many more. Further underscoring this item’s historic importance, this particular slit drum was previously exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Early 20th century

10’ 1/3“ high by 15" wide and 18" deep

The Art Institute of Chicago
Christie's, New York, 22 November 1996, Lot 215
Jerome and Ellen Stern Collection, New York
American Friends of the Israel Museum, bequeathed by the above in May 2018

Hugo DeBlock. Artifak: Cultural Revival, Tourism, and the Recrafting of History in Vanuatu. United Kingdom: Berghahn Books, 2018.
Eric Kjellgren. “From Fanla to New York and back: recovering the authorship and iconography of a slit drum from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu.” In Journal of Museum Ethnography, 2005, No. 17, pp. 118-129.
Slit Drum from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
Period: 1919-Present
Type: Sculpture
Depth: 18.0 Inches
Width: 15.5 Inches
Height: 124.25 Inches
Slit Drum from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
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