Carving – an old kastom in modern times

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Wood carving in Vanuatu is traditionally associated with custom (kastom) rights. The iconic tamtam, or split wood drum, is a figure that can only be carved by those who have gained custom right.

Originating from the island of Ambrym, the tamtam can have as many as six faces and each face represents a level of rank in tribal systems. The more faces you are entitled to carve, the higher your status. It is believed that there are less than a handful of carvers who have the right to carve a six-faced tamtam in Vanuatu.

If you buy a tamtam, you can be certain that it is an authentic product. Only those who have the right to carve are also able to sell their pieces. If someone replicates a tamtam or carves more heads than they are entitled to, even if it is not for commercial purposes, you can be sure that the chiefs and community leaders will confiscate it. This does not happen often – it is widely understood that to carve a tamtam without seeking permission is taboo.

Traditional practices are still deeply rooted in Ni-Vanuatu culture despite its rapid urbanization. Not many would dare to carve a tamtam without going through the expected ritual of custom, especially because tamtams are believed to be sacred totems that hold spirits.

However, as Vanuatu changes, so has the nature of carving. Carving is no longer done purely for custom and tradition purposes. Its form is adapting and evolving to reflect the modern world. Carving in Vanuatu today celebrates artistic expression and offers employment opportunities to those who commit to it.

The Kastom Carver

Abel Silas Bong’s woodwork skills have seen him win local tradeshows and have given him the opportunity to travel overseas. Hailing from North Ambrym, Abel has earned the right to carve a two-faced tamtam but he also uses his talent to create modern carvings.

His signature pieces include glass top tables shaped into various forms using a single block of wood. On one particular table, Abel has carved sea snakes and fish on the body of the table to create a striking one-of-a-kind piece.

At his recent exhibition at Alliance Francaise last May, Abel explained he sourced most of the wood for his carvings at this exhibition from Cyclone Pam’s aftermath in 2015.

‘After the Cyclone, the saltwater brought this,’ Abel says, pointing to an uprooted tree skillfully carved into a wooden reef of sea creatures. ‘I dug it out of the sand and I could already see the shapes forming. What people thought was a dirty piece of wood, I turned into art.’

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His work is impressive. It can take between two days and one week for Abel to complete a carving. This does not include the time of actually cutting the wood or sandpapering and polishing it after it has been carved. The carvings are intricately detailed with a smooth finish and are the result of many years of practice.

Abel became interested in carving after finishing school in class six. He began to practice on soft wood using a sharpened 5-inch nail and when he moved to Port Vila a few years later, he replaced the nail with a chisel. Abel says that when he started using proper woodwork tools, the transition from custom carvings to art occurred naturally.

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‘When I carve, I just follow the form and picture every angle. When it is finished, I want to see the whole picture no matter where I stand.’ His vision for the end work of his carvings is successful. Wherever you stand when you look at Abel’s work, whether head on, sideways or from below, the wood has been sculpted to life. For added effect, he also uses shells to accentuate the eyes of the animals he carves.

‘I have never worked in an office. I just cut wood and turn it into something good. I have been able to put all my kids through school because of carving,’ Abel says. ‘It is mostly white people who appreciate my work. Sometimes ol man Vanuatu will come and admire, but they never ask me about how they can learn as well.’

His work is displayed at the Port Vila Handicrafts Center in the wharf area and features mostly sea creatures and traditional pieces including tamtams and masks. ‘I am happy that I have the right to carve two faces on the tamtam, but I don’t think I will gain anymore,’ Abel says. ‘At least my son has inherited the right from me.’

When pressed to explain the meaning behind one of the masks on display, he refuses to say anything more except that it is used for dancing. ‘It is taboo to talk about it,’ Abel smiles. ‘Unless you want to kill some pigs and gain the right, then I will tell you.’

The Commercial Carver

Willy has no custom rights. He says that all his carvings are created upon request from customers. If they ask for a turtle, he will carve a turtle or if they would like a traditional tray, he will make a tray.

He is currently carving posts that feature sea creatures, jungle animals and nature for timber suppliers and joinery services company, TIVR Timber. His work can also be seen at Breakas Beach Resort and Nasama Resort in Pango.

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Originally from Tongoa in the Shepherd Islands, Willy now lives in North Efate and makes the hour-long trip to TIVR Timber every morning. ‘I have never carved for custom. If I did, I would be in big trouble,’ he says. ‘We don’t have that kind of custom in Tongoa. Carving is art to me. If I see a picture in a book, I can carve it. I used to plan and make a drawing before I carve but now it comes easy. I don’t need a pencil anymore, just a chisel.’

When Willy was in primary school, his uncle, who was a carver, noticed he was talented at drawing. He told Willy that if he could draw, then he could definitely carve and it soon became Willy’s dream to be a carver.

It was Willy’s grandfather (apu), another carver, who took him under his wing. ‘I watched how my apu’s hands would move when he carved. At first I didn’t do any carving, my job was just to clean and sandpaper it. When he thought I was ready, he gave me some wood,’ Willy says. ‘He never told me how to do it. He just told me do it.’

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Willy says that it takes dedication to become a good carver. ‘If you want to learn how to carve, you need to spend time with someone who carves. Then you have to do it everyday. I commit from morning until five in the afternoon. Only on Saturday and Sunday I rest.’

Willy has exhibited his work once but would like to learn different techniques to broaden his carving skills. ‘I would like to know more about carving. I want better tools to bring the pictures in my head to life,’ he says. ‘I want my art to change. I hope I get the chance to travel because there is not much opportunity to learn here.’

The Contemporary Carver

Vanuatu’s world-renowned contemporary artist Emmanuel Watt has been carving for more than 40 years. Also known as ‘Papa blong Contemporary Art’, Emmanuel initially used wood to carve his sculptures but now experiments with different mediums including black coral and soap. Delicate figurines made from soap are showcased on a table at his home in Stade area, including a woman’s naked body, lovers embracing, an octopus and an owl.

‘I can’t stop carving. I have to work everyday,’ he says. ‘I was in New Caledonia when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. I was unable to return home, so my friends gave me three months worth of soap. I made this instead,’ he explains pointing to the exquisite figures carved on soap.

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Emmanuel admits that even as a child, he would purposefully break his toys in order to recreate something better. With a Pentecost, Ambae and French background, Emmanuel has made thousands of carvings in his lifetime.

His work has been showcased as far afield as England, France and China and some of his signature pieces, including a meter and half long wooden mermaid, will make the international journey but return with him.

‘There are some things I will never sell,’ he says, picking up hermit shells that are fastened with hermit crabs made from black coral. They look strikingly real. ‘Like these. The kids like to play with them when they come over.’

After receiving general arts training in France in his younger years, Emmanuel returned to Vanuatu with a different outlook. ‘France opened my eyes,’ he said. ‘I came home and saw that I could make so much from nature. Nature has given me everything.’

emmanuelleEmmanuel says he sees things that people cannot. ‘Sometimes I am driving and I have to stop because I see a tree that has form, like a person. Most of my carvings are a piece of wood that I find. I feel a connection to it and always ask permission before I take it.’

Over time, his work has evolved from structured carvings to abstract, contemporary pieces that sometimes engage viewers with sound and movement. His home, which also serves as his workshop, reflects his progress.

A twenty-year-old wooden statue of a chief stands in contrast with his latest piece – wooden stick figures that appear to be dancing before a miniature land diving site. He pulls a string and traditional Pentecost anklets clang together to make an unexpected noise. ‘I want to make people laugh,’ he says, although he is the only one laughing from frightening everyone in the room.

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Every piece is unique from the other and Emmanuel is continuously exploring different mediums to carve on. He has carved a whale from a piece of whalebone he found on the beach. An uprooted pandanus tree has become a school of dolphins.

The only regular items he carves are shell jewelry that he sells from his home. He has no desire to sell in town. ‘Necklaces and earrings are to buy food,’ he says humbly. ‘I like it this way. It is enough.’

Emmanuel’s work has featured in several accomplished art magazines and books. He even has his own biography. His latest feature is in a children’s book from New Caledonia where one of his wooden carvings was chosen for the cover page from dozens of Pacific artists.

This November, he is scheduled to have his 40-year retrospective exhibition at Alliance Francaise, open for the public to see. An incredible artist, lover of nature and of beauty, a man who values time and joy over money, and a gentle, humble, existence in harmony with nature, Emmanuel is also a visionary.

Carving in Vanuatu, whether in its most traditional form as kastom, its freer contemporary counterpart, or made-to-order as an end but also a means, is foremost, art. A practice that has been lost in many other cultures as its intrinsic value fails to translate into an economic value of equal worth. In Vanuatu, where people are still content to live humble lives, and time is seen as more valuable than money, the art of carving continues to breathe and evolve.


Story and photography by Yasmine Bjornum