Vanuatu art exhibition showcases resilience in the face of climate change

Participants in the Vanuatu Artists Fellowship Arts Development Workshop at the Fondation Suzanne Gallery, with Dr Maya Haviland. Image: Daniel Owen
Wednesday 30 September 2020

By Evana Ho

This year, the world has faced the life-changing calamity of COVID. Vanuatu, an island nation east of Australia has been COVID-free. But not problem-free: its economy has been dramatically diminished by the loss of tourism and it has continued to battle a threat to its very existence. That is, the effects of climate change.

The impacts of climate change on Vanuatu, how indigenous (‘kastom’) knowledge might help address this crisis, and the bringing of traditional art and styles into contemporary practice are the themes of a new exhibition in Vanuatu. The Step Folem Step exhibition which opened at the Fondation Suzanne Bastien gallery on September 9 features painting, installation, photography, music, carving, and performance-based works. It’s the result of a collaboration between artists and cultural organisations in  Vanuatu and researchers at the Australian National University: Dr Maya Haviland from the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), and Professor Margaret Jolly and Dr Siobhan McDonnell of the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP). 

Dr Maya Haviland, Senior Lecturer in the ANU Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in CASS, and co-curator of the exhibition, explains that ‘Step Folem Step’ literally means one step after another. 

“It is speaking both to the idea of remix, drawing on materials, ideas, stories that have always been used in Vanuatu, as well as the approach to using traditional ecological knowledge in response to the challenges we face today,” Dr Haviland says.

Lina Ariki, one of the two ni-Vanuatu curators of the exhibition, explains that the title refers to the vast traditional knowledge and ways of life of her country’s ancestors that are being lost.

“As we encounter climate change the best way to convince our families and communities is to readopt these natural lifestyles from the past in order to reduce our own carbon [foot]print,” she says. “A step to reduce climate change and a step forward.”

The works featured in Step Folem Step emerged from the year-long Vanuatu Artists Fellowship project, which ran from 2019 to 2020 and supported a diverse group of eight emerging and established Vanuatu artists. Funding was provided through Dr Haviland's ANU translational fellowship, but principally from CAP scholars Professor Margaret Jolly and Dr Siobhan McDonnell's ARC Discovery grant Engendering Climate Change, Reframing Futures in Oceania (2018-2020). In their grant research summary, they say that in confronting the challenges of climate change, “it is crucial to see the peoples of the Pacific not as victims but as engaged actors who are actively tackling climate change.”

Professor Jolly says, “One of the key aims of our ARC project is to see how Indigenous knowledge and practice is being used and transformed to fight back against climate change and how creative expression is raising awareness and action on the issue across the Pacific.”

“This meshes with Maya Haviland's focus on ideas of remix and co-creativity in artistic practice in Vanuatu,” Professor Jolly says.

Dr Haviland agrees: “My project Remix – Negotiating Contemporary Art and Kastom in the Pacific seeks to better understand how artists and cultural producers find ways to draw on traditional knowledge in ways that are respectful and approved by cultural knowledge holders, while enabling space for creative innovation. We want to understand how remix is shaping the possibilities of creative cultural expression in Vanuatu, and what is shaping different approaches to remix-style practice.”

“I think it is really important that our research work through the university has direct benefit for artists, cultural producers, organisations and communities that we work with,” she adds. “So we’ve focussed on doing practical projects together that support people to be able to make new creative works, to exhibit these and promote their practice, perspective and ideas.”

Vanuatu, which is comprised of over 80 islands, has a population smaller than that of Canberra. It’s classified as a Small Island Developing State, and artists there do not have access to the sorts of formal learning and development enjoyed by artists from its larger, wealthier neighbours such as Australia. This is partly why the Vanuatu Artists Fellowship project has been so valuable to the artists it was able to support. 

“In Vanuatu, there isn’t an art school, and most artists have little extra income to use on materials or research,” says Dr Haviland. 

“This kind of project provides a practical support for creative artists to develop their creative ideas and practice, and access the resources in ways that are not directly driven by commercial priorities of making things that tourists might want to buy.”

To help the fellowship artists develop their work, and access research and people with knowledge about the themes and areas the artists wanted to explore, the ANU researchers facilitated a series of workshops in Vanuatu and online. Dr McDonnell kicked off the first of the workshops, at the National Arts Festival in Malekula, with Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworkers. 

The researchers also shared with the artists academic research and collection items the artists would have had difficulty accessing themselves. 

“An example was Siobhan sharing archaeological and rock art research that has documented designs and patterns from the island of Erromango where Fellowship artist Amelia Lovo is from,” Dr Haviland says. “Amelia has long painted on tapa, but she went back to her island of Erromango as part of this project and made the piece of tapa in this art work, working with some of her family members to do the long process of gathering the bark and pounding it into cloth. Then she researched how to make natural pigments from local materials.”

In the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns shutting down travel, the ANU team had to hold the remainder of their planned workshops over Zoom, identifying a co-working space with high-speed internet in Port Villa to make that work. They credit their local curators Lina Ariki and Mars Melto for keeping up the collective creative energy.  

“The ni-Vanuatu curators played a really important role in maintaining contact with participating artists, mentorship, art logistics and helping identify need for access to archival materials, workshops and arts materials,” Dr Haviland says. “In the end they also oversaw the final curation of the exhibition because none of us from the ANU could travel to be physically present for the installation and launch of the exhibition.”

“Lina, Mars and I did a lot of Zoom calls, and sent pictures of art works around on Facebook messenger and email, doing the curatorial work in a weird hybrid of digital and oral form.”

Step Folem Step opened in the capital Port Vila at the Fondation Suzanne Bastien gallery on 9 September. Australia’s High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Her Excellency Sarah deZoeten, attended the event, which was launched by the Hon. Ralph Regenvanu MP, Leader of the Opposition in Vanuatu. Ralph Regenvanu is an Australian National University alumnus, having completed a Bachelor of Arts (Development Studies) (Hons) with CASS in 1994. He has been described as Vanuatu’s first anthropologist.

Mr Regenvanu has been outspoken about the impact of climate change on Vanuatu. Despite being one of the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emitters, it is also one of the most vulnerable to the hazards of climate change. In 2018, when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Regenvanu announced at the Climate Vulnerable Forum Virtual Summit that Vanuatu was investigating how it might sue fossil fuel companies and others responsible for creating this “existential threat to my country.” Dr McDonnell, a lawyer and anthropologist, is part of the taskforce advising the Vanuatu Government on how best to progress this climate litigation work.

The danger Vanuatu faces isn’t exaggerated. Sea levels have risen higher around Vanuatu than the global average, and it has seen an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events such as drought and cyclones. In 2015, Cyclone Pam directly affected half the national population and damaged 90% of buildings in Port Vila. Then Tropical Cyclone Harold swept through in early April 2020, again directly impacting half the population, but this time most severely in the northern islands. These Category 5 cyclones have had massive impacts on the country’s people and economy – and will continue to do so. 

Mr Regenvanu referred to Cyclone Harold in his speech at the exhibition launch.

“In 2020 as we all know COVID-19 intervened and Cyclone Harold hit, flights stopped and the project had to find a new way of working,” he said. “[They] have had to work out how to just put one foot in front of the other: ‘Step Folem Step’.”

As an artist of international renown himself, Mr Regenvanu was a very fitting person to launch the exhibition. 

“The artists in the exhibition show the diverse creativity and talent in Vanuatu, and include younger emerging artists and more established artists, and, very importantly a number of emerging female artists,” he said.

Two of the artworks are particularly meaningful to Dr Haviland. The first are the paintings by Mars Melto for his installation Karen I Danis (The Garden Dances)

“These are acrylic paintings on pandanus mats and he made seven for the installation,” Dr Haviland says. “I am just really struck by his paintings; as one person commented on social media, these paintings mark a real evolution in Vanuatu painting.” 

The other body of work is the paintings of tapa (back cloth) by Amelia Lovo, whom she mentioned earlier.

“I’ve been so excited to see the way Amelia has extended her practice and sought out the people and the places to learn more so she can extend her painting in different ways.”

A striking work of acrylic on canvas by Gideon Arudali, entitled Two Worlds facing climate change, directly addresses using traditional knowledge to confront the looming threat.

He writes: "This painting shows two different Worlds, the cultural knowledge and traditional living. And the other world is the urban life and modern culture.”

Just as COVID disrupted the fellowship project workshops and the development of the exhibition, it also kept the ANU researchers from attending the launch in person. Still, they’re thrilled with the outcome of their hard work.

“The exhibition opening was vibrant,” says Professor Jolly. “We were delighted with the quality of the work across several genres.”

Step Folem Step is open until 10 October, but the team behind it appreciate that COVID travel restrictions limit its potential audience. Consequently, they’re hoping to realise the exhibition as a virtual one, online. To that end, over the past few months they’ve worked with a Vanuatu filmmaker, photographer, and researchers to document the project and interview the artists and other cultural producers. 

“However, at this time, even moving data between Vanuatu and Australia is hard as almost no flights are going,” Dr Haviland says. “So our research process has slowed down as we have to find ways to physically move hard drives of footage between the two countries, which may take months rather than weeks in the current conditions.”

“But these challenges show just how resilient good collaborations can be. Despite all the challenges posed by COVID in 2020, the project went ahead and the artists and curators put together a really extraordinary exhibition. I hope these works can, over time, get the broader audience they deserve.” 

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Updated:  30 September 2020/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications