Art of Vanuatu vibrant, alive

 A FASCINATION with the art of Vanuatu is one shared by both Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia and Crispin Hogarth, Curator Pacific Arts. 

Artist or owner: Ajningleu from Vanuatu, MalampaProvince, TommanIsland. Work: “Vimpuri” c.1972

Artist or owner: Ajningleu from Vanuatu, MalampaProvince, TommanIsland. Work: “Vimpuri” c.1972

So keen were they to see a serious exploration of such work that they travelled to Vanuatu together to investigate the protocols essential for exhibiting traditional art. The result, Radford believes, is the first major exhibition of Vanuatu art for Australia,  a fitting successor to “Imagining Papua New Guinea”, “Gods, Ghosts and men” and “Varilaku: Pacific arts from the Solomon Island.”

In “Kastom: Art of Vanuatu,” a new exhibition curated by Howarth, a selection  of compelling sculptures created for ritual events, helps make the point that both emphasise —  unlike some other Pacific nations, customary practices known as “Kastom” remain stronger in Vanuatu even after a century of colonial religious influences.

This exhibition gives the public a chance to see a hitherto hidden collection of art from this area held by the NGA. Even Picasso collected art from Vanuatu, Radford told the assembled media, and so it was only right that we should get to see the best of it.

Artist or owner: Kamanlyk from Vanuatu, MalampaProvince, MalakulaIsland, Lendamboe village. Work: “Metaniele” c.1972

Artist or owner: Kamanlyk from Vanuatu, MalampaProvince, MalakulaIsland, Lendamboe village. Work: “Metaniele” c.1972

Radford today praised the foresight of the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board for the yet to be built NGA which, in the early 1970s, contracted French linguist, Jean-Michel Charpentier, resident in Vanuatu, to build a collection of Pacific Art. The result was the acquisition of nearly 200 works, many of which have only now been conserved to the point where public exhibition is possible. What is more remarkable is that he photographed the artists, not anonymous creators but respected people paid by chiefs to create works for ritual purposes?

The works on show include the four metre figure “Maghe ni Hivwir” created from tree fern and “Ramparamp,” life sized effigies of customary leaders which enabled them to live beyond death, in two cases involving real skulls.

The upright slit drums, “Atingting,” made from tree trunks and topped with big eyed faces, have long been visible in the gallery’s SculptureGarden.

There are sculptures in wood, tree fern, clay and stone, and, as Howarth proudly showed, spider web long dyed brown wit smoke. Although Howarth admitted to “CityNews” that it was a largely a blokey exhibition, with an abundance of male fertility representations, he pointed to two delicate examples of weaving by women, with finely worked edges. As well, the work “Vimpuri” (so similar in name to vampire) shows a terrifying female spirit with her child perched on her back.   The ephemeral art of sand drawing is also on show, cleverly displayed so that visiting specialist artist, Samantha Leo, and doesn’t have to redo the drawings each day.

To Radford and Howarth it is manifest that Kastom is an inseparable part of Ni-Vanuatu culture, a vibrant living culture where the arts produced for traditional purposes, even quite recently, are remarkably comparable to those of long ago.

“Kastom: Art of Vanuatu” Orde Poynton Gallery, National Gallery of Australia,  February 8 – June 16. 10am – 5pm daily. Entry free.

 “Atingting” [slit drums] mid-20th century, from Vanuatu, Malampa Province, Ambrym Island and Malakula Island

“Atingting” [slit drums] mid-20th century, from Vanuatu, Malampa Province, Ambrym Island and Malakula Island

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