The Suzanne Bastien Foundation will be one year old this December. Opened in December 2013, this is the legacy of Madam Suzanne Bastien, one of Vanuatu’s most prominent patrons of the arts. Called ‘The Mother of Contemporary Art in Vanuatu’, Suzanne Bastien is one of those people who does not need an introduction for anyone that calls these islands home. Born in Noumea, she first arrived in Vanuatu in 1960 to become a teacher in Pango’s first non-denominational school. She would continue to teach until 1971 when she left for France for a period of three years. It was not long before she returned to her beloved tropical shores and it was upon her homecoming that Suzanne found her true place in the country and within her own life.
Suzanne’s passion had always been art. Albeit she did not know where this passion came from, it was ingrained in the fabric of her being just as oxygen is part of the air we breathe. On her return to Vanuatu in 1974, she chose to follow her passion and started helping her friend Judith Wood at her arts and crafts shop in Port Vila. It was here that the idea of ‘L’Atelier’ (The Workshop) was born. A gallery, arts and crafts shop and picture-framing business, L’Atelier, established by Suzanne and Hardison Roru, quickly became a meeting place for contemporary artists. Originally located in an old colonial building in Port Vila’s main street, the gallery remained a focal point in Vanuatu’s art world for over two decades, moving location later on to another building. Unfortunately, age was not kind to Suzanne and her sight started to deteriorate rapidly in the late 90’s until the year 2000, when she decided that she was no longer able to run her gallery. Getting close to her 90th birthday, she was determined that her passion for the arts would survive her and decided to create a foundation for the arts to which to entrust her life-long legacy.
In 2006, the Suzanne Bastien Foundation was born. The Foundation includes all of Suzanne’s estate; over three hectares of land in Pango that Suzanne acquired back in 1964. The land, set along Pango’s lovely beachfront, has pretty gardens and a number of buildings on it, including Suzanne’s house and several others. The main gallery was built in 2012 with the purpose of creating a space for contemporary local artists to exhibit their work and to hold conferences and show films on topics relating to art and nature. With a huge exhibition space on the main floor, an upstairs area, rest area and small library with a selection of art books, it has the capability to accommodate significant exhibitions and events.
The gallery was officially opened last December; sadly Suzanne did not get to witness its opening as she passed away a month earlier, on November 9th.
The Foundation is managed by a committee that includes artists Patrice Cujo and Sero Kuautonga, Ralph Regenvanu, the director of Alliance Francaise and the Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre amongst others. The Foundation is run by Macha Paris, a friend of Suzanne and long-time resident of Vanuatu. All the members work in a volunteer capacity and the Foundation ticks along with the funds left from Suzanne and the income from the rental of some of its properties. The foundation however, will ultimately need other external sources of funding to keep operating. “One of the obstacles that the Foundation encounters is finding people to help manage and develop it when there is no money to pay them,” explains Hon. Minister Ralph Ragenvanu, inaugural committee member and treasurer of the Foundation. “The Foundation’s vision is to preserve the original milieu of the site and put it into the service of the community,” Ralphs explains. “Vanuatu artists encounter many difficulties in their creative process; from the lack and cost of quality art materials to limited access to fine art markets and lack of marketing overall. The aim of the Foundation is to promote and nurture creativity and the arts. As well, it provides a different model for how to use land in the city.”
During her life, Suzanne gave advice and helped many local and Pacific artists. “Through my growing process as an artist, Suzanne gave me advice on how to improve the colours and shapes of my paintings, she gave me many ideas,” says Juliette Pitta, one of Vanuatu’s best-known female artists. Suzanne was instrumental in the formation of the Nawita Association of Contemporary Artists and helped many emerging artists before they became well-know by housing them and providing a space for them to work, as well as personally acquiring many of their works. Such is the case of the permanent display at the Foundation, also part of the opening exhibition commemorating the centenary of the major eruption of Ambrym’s volcano in 1913. The display includes eighteen paintings by Patrice Cujo, known as the “Maps of Vanuatu.” These were purchased by Suzanne as she understood the importance of the collection to the country. “When I saw them I knew that they were so important to Vanuatu that it was impossible to let them go away….it was quite a significant figure and for me it was a sacrifice, but in life you sacrifice for what you wish,” she said in her interview with the Independent Newspaper on September 2011.
Renowned artist Tatin was a close friend of Suzanne and spent considerable time living and working at her property back in the ‘70s and the purpose-built studio in which he worked still stands, hiding amongst the hibiscus in the gardens. “We are planning to hold an exhibition of Tatin’s work in the future which will display Tatin’s work currently held by the Foundation and some of the work that remains in private collections in Vanuatu,” explains Macha Paris, director of the Foundation.
Currently, work is underway to convert one of the buildings on the property to an artist’s studio to provide a space for local artists to work. Suzanne loved her gardens and part of the Foundation’s vision is to rehabilitate the gardens and create a public park with a walkway for everyone to enjoy.
The Foundation also has an artists-in-residence program, bringing artists from overseas to share their skills and knowledge with local artists. Joaquim Rufat, ‘decopager’ and garden designer, is the current artist in residence at the Foundation and will be holding workshops and working on the garden and park rehabilitation project.
Madam Bastien left an incredible gift to Vanuatu and her legacy continues after her departure. Through her work and the work of the committed team of volunteers behind the foundation, Vanuatu’s art world can keep on breathing, growing and developing to the beat of its cultural drum, a tam tam filled with ancient kastom, on its journey towards an uncertain but always exciting future.
Located on Pango Road. The Gallery is open from 10am to 4.30pm Tuesday through to Saturday and entrance to the gallery is free. For more information visit www.fondation-bastien-vanuatu.org. Email [email protected], Phone 7744757.
Story by Patricia Gil. Phtography by Graham Crumb.