With 83 isolated islands, it’s hardly surprising that Vanuatu’s art and traditions vary from island to island, and this diversity contributes to the country’s unique cultural identity. Ni-Vanuatu art focuses on the human form and traditional interpretations of what ancestral figures looked like. The most important ni-Vanuatu artefacts are made in preparation for nimangki grade-taking ceremonies.
While wood is the main material used for carving, objects are also formed from tree fern, stone and coral. Serious carving is almost entirely undertaken for ceremonies, while items for sale are usually small copies of the real thing. The best carvings come from north Ambrym.
Clubs & Weapons
War clubs are made to designs attributed to an ancestral cultural hero. To alter a basic shape is considered a breach of kastom (tradition). Pig-killing clubs are shaped like mattocks, with two stylised faces carved on either side. Carved bows and arrows, and traditional ceremonial spears can be found in the village of Mele and on the island of Ifira, both near Port Vila.
Bowls, Poles & Walking Sticks
Large platters and bowls are used to pound yams and kava in, or to serve laplap (a staple dish). Some, such as those from the Shepherd Islands, are carved like birds or fish.
Some chiefs use carved wooden staffs as badges of office and walking sticks are made with figurines in place of handles.
Exquisite model canoes with sails fashioned from dried pandanus leaves come from Makura in the Shepherds. Atchin islanders (off Malekula) carve their miniature canoes complete with figureheads.
Tall statues made from tree ferns, or black palms, are made on Ambrym, Malekula and Gaua. They represent both male and female ancestral figures and are carved for nimangki ceremonies. They’re often painted in different colours, using tints extracted from vegetable dyes and crushed shells; the choice of colours depends on the grade being taken.
The island of Malekula produces some of the most colourful and dynamic ceremonial masks. Dancing masks worn by men of high rank are carved from tree ferns, as are masks for funerals, nimangki ceremonies or boys’ initiations. Other ceremonial headdresses are built using a human skull for the base and surmounted by tall feathers. In the past, many headdresses were burnt after use.
String bands developed during WWII, when ni-Vans were exposed to US soldiers playing bluegrass. Local lads added the bush bass, made from a converted tea chest; the bongo; the tambourine; and a ratchet made from bamboo. Some bands use a xylophone of water-filled bottles. The singing is done with a pinched throat, forming a high-pitched lyrical note. Songs are improvised about life. For example, when Nguna’s local band sings, ‘Poor Saykem, caught in a current, canoe is filling, sharks are swimming, Poor Saykem, Poor Saykem,’ it captures a dramatic moment when an old fisherman had to be rescued. Book in for a Melanesian feast in Port Vila to guarantee a listen; these also usually feature kastom dancing.
Musicians have contributed to the country’s economy and are getting recognition, with sound studios and training rooms being established on many islands, notably the charitable Canal Studio on Santo.
Contemporary music to listen out for includes Nauten Boys of Tanna (‘Jewel in a Crown’); Vanessa Quai, an international award winner (see The Best of Vanessa Quai); Natano Pasifika, featuring Mars Melto; and Chocolate Strings featuring singer-guitarist Ofa Fanaika.
Young ni-Van men make their own instruments, and join together to form local string bands. If you are fortunate enough to buy, say, a homemade guitar, you will be surrounded by interested strangers asking if they may play it for you at mostly every cafe, bus stop or airport. The downside is when your waiter tells you there’s no fish on today’s menu as the fishers have all left to play in a string band.
Ni-Van women have not, to date, been encouraged to play musical instruments, but the women of Gaua use the ocean to play water music. You can watch them play at Aver Bay, near Gaua airport. The Leweton Cultural Group have been travelling around the world, performing their amazing water dance; you can also see them on Santo at Leweton Cultural Village in Luganville.
Vanuatu’s unique musical device is the huge tamtam, or slit-gong, from Malekula and Ambrym. It is a carved log with a hollowed-out slit that enables it to be used as a drum. Originally used to send coded messages as well as forming drum orchestras for festivities and celebrations, it is traditionally made from the breadfruit tree, which gives the best sound.
The typical tamtam has a representation of a human face carved above the drum part; some in north Ambrym have rooster faces. Faces on Malekulan drums are generally very simple, but those from Ambrym can be ornate and elaborately carved, and often valued by collectors worldwide. It takes about 160 hours to produce a 2.5m tamtam with a single face.
On Ambrym designs belong to particular families and can only be used if a fee is paid. Some carvers have produced copies in Vila. Ambrym chiefs look out for such transgressors – they are no longer executed, but they are fined.
Flutes & Conch Shells
Panpipes, usually with seven small bamboo flutes, are found all over Vanuatu. Ambrym people play a long, geometrically patterned musical pipe, while in Santo a simple three-holed flute is used.
On many islands, large triton shells (a type of conch) are blown as a means of communication.
Styles of painting practised in Vanuatu include bark art in the Banks Islands. Body painting is popular throughout the country as part of various traditional ceremonies.
Petroglyphs and rock paintings are the country’s most ancient forms of pictorial art, though the meanings and traditions of the carvings have been lost. Apart from drawings depicting European ships from the 18th century, it is difficult to establish their age. Several islands have caves whose walls are decorated with hand stencils and paintings of animals.
Mostly undertaken by women, weaving is always done by hand. Pandanus leaves and burao (wild hibiscus) stalks are the most favoured materials. Wicker, coconut leaves and rattan are used for more robust items.
Pandanus shopping baskets are made on a number of islands: the artisans of Mataso (in the Shepherds) and Futuna are noted for their intricate wares.
Locally made red pandanus mats are traditionally used as currency in Ambae, Maewo and northern Pentecost. These mats are presented at weddings, grade-taking ceremonies, births, funerals and for the payment of customary debts. They were used as everyday clothing, but nowadays are only worn during ceremonies.
Fish, bird and shellfish traps are also manufactured, as are furniture and Panama-style hats.