Fw: 2019 Vanuatu Edgars fine sand drawings
Edgar’s Soft Voice of Welcome
At Vanuatu National Museum
We climbed the hill towards the museum with a hunger for knowledge and started by admiring the tree fern figures that are carved to represent a person or spirit with their hands either across their stomachs or by their sides. A fern sculpture is carved each time a person passes to another grade in the maghe festivals and the carvers strive to make a perfect carving because then the spirit of an ancestor will make their home in it. They can be painted in natural colours, black, red, white and or green and are usually life size unlike the tam tam slit gongs, which as you can see in the picture with Rob showing the scale of the carving can be up to six metres high.
The number of heads above the carved slit denotes the status of a chief. There are many of these tree fern carvings and tam tams around Port Vila decorating hotel and restaurant entrances and they are a delightful reminder of the past.
We passed the National Parliament Building, now open for business because it was Monday and entered the cool dark shade of the museum. The photo of the man wearing a namba or penis sheath is typical of male clothing in ancient times on Malacula Island. The custom has now largely died out except in a couple of isolated villages in the south of the island.
Cannibalism continued in to the 1960’s on Malacula and a very few old people can still be seen who had their heads bound when they were babies. The centre of a person’s being was thought to be in their brain so by ‘extending’ the cranial cavity it was thought the person would achieve greater intelligence. The photograph was taken by an American couple, Martin and Osa Johnson, who did a major photographic survey of the Vanuatuan people exactly one hundred years ago. An exhibition of their work was in the art gallery next door.
In our travels we have noticed a few male villagers wearing pigs’ tusks as ornaments. They are high status and very expensive. In jewellers shops they cost tens of thousands of vatu as bangles and pendants. The front top incisors of the pig are removed when it is young so the bottom ones overgrow and form a circle which, if the pig is allowed to live long enough, will penetrate the lower jaw and continue to grow into another circle. The more circles the higher the value of the tusk and the status of the wearer. A very old pig might have three perforations of his lower jaw, ouch!
The Vanuatuans traditionally believe in reincarnation so the grotesque effigy of the dead person you see might well have their actual skull moulded in to the head, imagine coming across that in a forest ramble after dark!
The tomb of Roi Mata and the photo of his excavated skeleton along with that of the wife he really loved is the story of a man who landed in south Efate, at a place called Maniora with the intention of conquering the island but turned out to be a peacemaker. But I will tell you more about that particular legend later.
I was leaning over a glass table containing shells upstairs in the museum photographing some A4 pages of information about the 1990’s revival of sailing in the islands when a soft male voice said “I am about to start a little cultural show in a moment if you would like to join us.” Well that’s like offering a dog a bone to me so I scuttled after him back doen the stairs making a note of where to resume my ‘photocopying’.
Rob was already seated, he had been there a while waiting for me to finish exploring, and a few more visitors sat on the two facing rows of forms.
On the floor was a large shallow wooden tray covered in a thin layer of sand. Sand drawings I thought, great, a treat indeed. A young lady came out of the office, knelt on the floor and gave the tray a sharp shake so the sand settled in a fine layer ready for her index finger to ‘draw’ a continuous line starting with the straight lines of a grid like graph paper to assist accuracy. Her finger then rasped a lot of sensuous curves without leaving the board until the picture was finished. I could see, amidst the numerous lines, the shape of a heart in the centre, can you see it? She finished by drawing an ‘I’ on the left side and a ‘U’ on the right side. I love You.
Then Edgar gave the tray a quick flick and drew firstly a turtle and then a typical French blackbirding ship that brought terror to coastal communities and drove some of them into the hills to live in hiding.
He told us the story of Roi Mata and then played the percussion instrument you see in the picture while singing the Vanuatu National Anthem followed by the British National Anthem. I asked him about present marriage rules and he confirmed that couples now marry from choice but divorce is strongly frowned upon, “All the entities that support the couple in their union in the first place would be likely to follow the separated couple with bad luck for the rest of their days.” He also said the male Rom Dance I mentioned before is still held in secret in some villages but also performed for visiting tourists. I valued his show as it came from his heart and it was so nice to meet someone who knows how important it is to pass down the colourful history of these islands.
You see the photo of the little dugout with the palm frond sail, well if you remember I mentioned how the islanders from Lamen Island on Epi, our last port of call before Vila, used to sail back to their island home in the evening using a diffused trade breeze to get them home. I have a better photo of this later but the people could easily go back to using sail and oars to get around if the price of petrol rises too much. Nice they have the traditional option.
The masks you see are worn during the young boys’ Circumcision Dances as part of their Rite of Passage to manhood.
We wandered through the vast Chinese built Conference Centre, or should I say Controversy Centre where a Unesco Meeting was being held and chatted with some of the local ladies who had their craft stalls in there. They weren’t getting much custom in this imposing and formal building and 50% of their goods for sale looked like Chinese made tat. Since then a lady approached us on the promenade with little handouts directing us to this market to try and drum up some business. There is also a new handicraft market on the prom amidst bars and restaurants and with the shops nearby, a much more likely target for the purchasing of souvenirs.
The first photo was taken by Steph at the handover of our three boxes of uniforms.