“Kastom: Art of Vanuatu”, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 16th , 2013.
Kastom is a Ni-Vanuatu word that encompasses traditional religion, values and practices, and in many parts of this island nation of more than 100 languages, Kastom still rules. Kastom is particularly strong in the northern end of the archipelago, where grade societies like the Nimangi society of Malekula and the Mange society of North Ambrym dominate tribal existence.
Vanuatu grade societies represent a freemasonry of secret knowledge and carefully delineated ranks which is impenetrable from the outside. Within these societies, a man’s life may be described as a continual striving to attain the highest grade he can, an effort that persists beyond the grave since his grade is carried with him into the afterlife where the spirits treat him with respect due to his rank.
The most powerful of men in very senior grades can even perpetuate themselves on earth after death by commissioning a life-size rambaramp statue who’s head was the deceased’s own over-modeled skull. The rambaramp was displayed at all major ceremonies thereafter so that the deceased could still witness and participate in them.
There are three of these rare figures on display at this exhibition, of which the most striking is still wrapped in its protective covering of the pleated leaves of the Vanuatu Fan Palm (Licuala grandis).
In Malekula, Ambrym and other islands in the north, Kastom, grade taking and art are closely related. Entry into each grade requires a specific artwork that can only be created by an artist who owns the right to create it and he must be paid to do so.
As the legendary Kirk Huffman, founder of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, once explained “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.”
Grades are paid for in pigs, but at the same time, a grade is not something that can simply be bought. A man with a high grade rank is attributed with higher than average intelligence, wisdom; understanding of the spirit world and knowledge of kastom, and the candidate must be regarded by his peers as being worthy).
Kastom is also dynamic concept. Some years ago, the people of Amelboas, a hamlet on the coast of of Malekula, decided to reject Christianity and adopt Kastom as an alternative, so they built a men’s house, created a dance ground complete with standing log drums , sacrificed pigs, initiated a group of young men and have lived a Kastom life ever since. Nor are Kastom villages the Amish settlements of the Pacific – residents do wear modern dress as well as tribal costume, own western objects which they consider useful ,visit the local market town and ride around in trucks – but their religion and values derive from Kastom, not Christianity.
The NGA’s visually stunning exhibition of more than 50 Kastom artworks has been drawn exclusively from their own Vanuatu collection by Curator Crispin Howarth . More than 30 of these objects were collected by the same person, French Linguist Jean-Michel Charpentier, who trekked Malekula for more than a year to either buy them from their owners or have an authentic facsimile created by the owner of the design for the NGA collection. Of these almost all are grade ceremony figures, or figures associated with the Nalawan Society which counts the initiation of young men and the success of the yam crop among its functions.
The artworks collected by Charpentier are remarkable for the variety of natural materials used in their construction– wood, tree fern trunks, bamboo, vegetable fibre, spider web, feathers, coral, soft volcanic pumice, pig tusks and clay pigments are all used, often in striking juxtaposition. Malekula art is also visually challenging. Sculptures and masks often represent powerful and dangerous spirits, so faces tend to be grotesque or menacing and many have pig tusks protruding from their mouths and spirit children perched on their heads.
Cone-shaped head dresses and masks are common and are produced in many forms, and the anthropologist Bernard Deacon, author of “Malekula, a Vanishing Civilisation in the New Hebrides” (1934 ), describes how they are made by splitting a large bamboo segment almost to the top, and then spreading the resulting spokes around a hoop before covering it with vegetable fibre and clay, modelling the face and other details, painting it with natural ochre pigments and finishing it with boar tusks and a plume of feathers or leaves. (Incidentally, isn’t it wonderful that Deacon was wrong- 80 years after the book was first printed, Kastom is in fact flourishing in Malekula, not vanishing).
Since most of the works on show were collected by one person (Jean-Michel Charpentier) , in one place ( Malekula and its surrounding “small islands”), and in the same period (circa 1972), very few of the works on show are old by museum standards, but nevertheless these are authentic artworks (or accurate facsimiles) made by tribal artists who own the right to create them for authentic rituals. Of course, art does not stand still and every artist of note develops an individual style and signature, but at the same time, these works demonstrate a tremendous amount of historical continuity and several bear very close resemblance to the reference collection which was made for the Basel Museum of Ethnography by Felix Speiser in 1910 -12.
It was to prevent Kastom withering away or degrading into airport art that Kirk Huffman set up the Vanuatu Cultural centre as a Kastom safety deposit vault where secret sacred material could be placed by those who owned it, with the rights to view it restricted to their properly qualified descendents. Kirk, who continues as an Honorary Curator, long ago handed over management of the project to Ni-Vanuatu directors and curators, and the system as a whole is strongly supported by a network of grassroots facilitators in Kastom areas who ensure that key artworks continue to be placed there for safe keeping.
The Vanuatu Clutural Centre i is one reason why Kastom has survived into the 21st century. Another, perhaps even more important, is that Kastom continues to sustain and nurture the spiritual and social needs of its adherents very well and they feel no desire for change. A third factor is the support of the Vanuatu government, which is committed to balancing the need to govern a modern Pacific state in a modern world with respect for Kastom. Last year, for example, in the midst of the GFC, Vanuatu legislated to make payment of taxes and other debts in tribal currency – pigs, shell money, etc – legal tender.
In addition to displaying the fruits of Charpentier’s labours, this exhibition also demonstrates the NGA’s ongoing commitment to Pacific art. NGA Director Ron Radford and curator Crispin Howarth visited Vanuatu last year to negotiate the purchase of a group of large older carvings, including towering house posts and tree fern sculptures from the under-collected Banks Islands in the far north and these, together with large Ambrym tree fern sculptures purchased since 2000, and recently purchased weavings form Maevo and Pentecost, represent areas outside Malekula. Hopefully, the NGA will continue to grow its collection and build it into one o f the world’s great storehouses of Pacific art.
Finally, one of the frustrations of Vanuatu art for Westerners who want to know everything about every piece is that the Mange, Nimangi, and other grade societies are secret societies and the knowledge represented by the artworks is not for public consumption. As a result, information on these pieces is only given out in a sketchy and vague form or in a version that can be disclosed to outsiders. There is an easy solution to this problem. Stop trying to analyse them and enjoy them for their emotional and visual power – that , after all, is why they were created in the first place.
“Kastom Art of Vanuatu”, the 118 page catalogue of the exhibition, by Crispin Howarth, with articles by Kirk Huffman, field photographs taken by Charpentier and more than 50 annotated colour plates of artworks in the exhibition, may be ordered from http://nga.gov.au/publications/ or selected booksellers and will shortly be on sale at Amazon.com.
* Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Collected by J M Charpentier on behalf of the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board of Australia. Photographs copyright ANG. Photography: Alanna Bishop
See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp
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