Traditional 'Arts' in Vanuatu

By Kirk W. Huffman
Published online 17/10/00

Trying to define art within the complex contexts of Vanuatu society and kastom.



A straightforward word for 'art' can hardly be found amongst the 113 indigenous languages of Vanuatu. The 'European' concept of 'art' is much too simple for the country's numerous profound cultures, as is the 'European' concept of an 'art' piece unlinked to deep ritual experience and spiritual meaning. Thousands of objects of ritual and material culture from Vanuatu are held in museums worldwide, but many such pieces are still being produced in their home islands today for the same ancient ritual purposes.

More than most Pacific islanders, Ni-Vanuatu have, in general, managed to retain a strong sense of their traditional cultural identities, and the struggle for independence in the 1970s (leading to Independence from Britain and France in 1980) was really fueled by the desire to retain their languages and cultures and to reclaim alienated land.

Although Christianity is widely spread throughout the 83 inhabited islands, it has done relatively little to displace traditional beliefs in the spirit world, some isolated areas refusing to convert to Christianity at all and many areas combining traditional ritual and Christianity in a sophisticated and successful way to enhance relevance and meaning for all. Unfortunately many early white missionaries (and even some of the newer 'fundamentalist' churches today) have tried to destroy Ni-Vanuatu traditional artistic expression along with the traditional cultures, but the culturally vibrant nation of today shows that in most of the country these short-sighted attempts have been futile.

What 'white people' would call 'art' in Vanuatu is there essentially (but not always) the preserve of the 'World of Men', and the range of expression is vast and varies from culture to culture. Thousands of different types of ritual objects can be made of tree fern, wood, spiders' web, vegetable fibre paste, other plant materials and stone. Each object will usually have its own specific name, purpose and function: many are made to last only a short or specific time, for the duration of the rituals, and then 'die' (certain types of headdresses or masks can be destroyed immediately after the rituals) or 'go to 'sleep' (e.g. being stored for eventual repair, repainting and re-use).

Many of the forms are determined by strict ancient traditional guidelines. Although many such 'spirit' objects are to be seen in public aspects of rituals (there are often other aspects that cannot be seen by the public), it is often more important how the ancestral (and other) spirits also present at the rituals see them.

Cultural variation in Vanuatu is as complex as the linguistic situation, but in general most of the thousands of spiritual 'art' forms/representations appear for rituals associated with (male) initiation, status attainment (social ranking rituals), men's secret societies, and death. This situation pertains particularly in the northern half of the country, an area associated with male and female graded societies, ancient strict traditional copyright systems and megalithic cultures. There the innumerable types of masks, headdresses, ritual objects and ritual decorations for the dancing grounds portray aspects of the material and spiritual worlds and serve to link them. The famous large wooden slit drums (horizontal or vertical) are often a permanent feature of the ritual dancing grounds, along with the ('living') megalith stones that are Vanuatu's historical 'books' (if one has the knowledge to read them).

At another level, the country and islands themselves can be viewed as a profound form of spiritual 'art' at the juncture of undersea tectonic plates, with active, semi-active and dormant volcanoes on land and under the sea, the land itself moves: some islands appear and disappear, some are believed to be the handiwork of particular spirits or spiritual powers, there are few larger 'artistic canvases' in the world!

The World of Women produces its own aesthetic 'art' forms - in large part of finely woven material mostly from the pandanus leaf: beautiful mats, baskets, woven (and often intricately dyed) male and female costumes, money mats, 'bank' baskets and funerary mats. Beautifully made and decorated beaten barkcloth was produced in some areas. The social, economic, ritual and artistic Worlds of Men and Worlds of Women balance and complement each other: one cannot properly function without the other.

Traditional trade and exchange linked numerous areas, a bewildering array of complex, profoundly spiritual societies whose traditional 'currencies' varied/vary from stringed shell money, woven money mats through castrated male tusker pigs (the tusks often prominently featuring in 'art' forms), glabrous (hairless) pigs and intersex (hermaphrodite) pigs to fossilised clam shell monies. The famous circular pigs tusks were not, by themselves, a form of 'currency'.

For most Ni-Vanuatu the material 'arts' are the (usually) viewable but rarely touchable (except by those with the rights to do so) forms of spirit presence or power. One word, Kastom (in the lingua franca, Bislama), covers not only these objects but also encompasses all aspects of traditional life. The real 'arts' are the whole complex combined ensemble comprising oratory 'song', music, ritual, dance, drumming, body paints, masks, headdresses, ritual decorations and paraphernalia and the smells and sounds signifying such spiritual presence in combination with the participation of the earth itself. Thus Vanuatu traditional 'art' is not really just something that can be taken out of essential context and placed in a glass cabinet in a white man's museum. Kastom lives and has a life of its own.

Traditional beliefs and laws, as well as respect and copyright explain, to a certain extend, the reason why development of 'culture for tourism' can only go so far: one cannot overdo it without eventually cheapening or 'prostituting' kastom, and this is to be avoided.

Throughout Vanuatu - and particularly in the areas where the ancient traditional copyright systems reign - particular individuals, lineages, clans and areas are recognised as having the rights over certain types of knowledge, song, ritual and material spirit ('art') forms; to obtain such rights, one has to either inherit or purchase them (with appropriate respect). Thus, although the Internet may have its good points, the www is not necessarily the place to discuss in detail certain cultural aspects of Vanuatu as this modern invention has the disadvantage of making 'free' to almost anyone information that 'anyone' does not necessarily have the rights to.

From the late 1970s a small group of young Ni-Vanuatu artists, trained in modern western techniques, began to grow in the capital, Port Vila, and in 1989 they formed their own association, Nawita (Octopus). They produce superb work, not necessarily copying the traditional forms (because of traditional copyright considerations) but being inspired by them.

The National Museum of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in the capital Port Vila has regular exhibitions on traditional and modern themes, as well as a permanent display of a selection of the nation's rich cultural heritage.

Kirk W. Huffman

Honorary Curator (National Museum) Vanuatu Cultural Group (Curator 1977-1989)

Research Associate, Australian Museum

Visiting Fleischmann Fellow and Collections Fellow, Anthropology Division, Australian Museum 2000

Visiting Senior Research Fellow, AAOA, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1997-1998.

5th September 2000