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Pacific art comes to Canberra

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The first major survey of the art of traditional Vanuatu has been a long time coming, writes Ron Cerabona.

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 The new Exhibition Kastom Art of Vanuatu at the National Gallery of Australia, 
 The Canberra Times
 07 February 2013
 Photo Jay Cronan Click for more photos

Kastom: Art of Vanuatu

Pacific artworks on display at the National Gallery of Australia Photo: Jay Cronan

It's been a long time coming. The first major survey of the art of traditional Vanuatu in Australia opens on Friday at the National Gallery of Australia.

Kastom: Art of Vanuatu, curated by Crispin Howarth, is a collection of more than 50 works of indigenous art created for community practices and ritual events known as kastom. They range from fertility ceremonies to burial rites, spanning the gamut of life. Most of them have never been displayed.

The majority of the works were collected or commissioned in the early 1970s by the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board through Jean-Michel Charpentier.

The French linguist lived in Vanuatu and acquired works directly from the communities he visited. Other works have been recently acquired by the gallery. About a quarter of the collection is on display.

Howarth, the gallery's Curator of Pacific Art, said that as a boy growing up in Liverpool, England, he found Pacific art fascinating.

"It's so plastic, there's a vivid imagery about it."

He worked on the exhibition for the past couple of years with Marcelin Abong, the director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, to ensure it was displayed appropriately and sensitively.

Howarth said the items were made from a range of materials, including spiderwebs, clay, stone and feathers.

The oldest work was a mask dating from the 16th century and others were made in recent years, but regardless of the age, he said there was a consistency of style, taking into account cultural differences in different regions, across the centuries.

One exhibit that particular impressed him was footage of sand artist Samantha Leo at work.

"There are hundreds of designs," he said.

"There's a complexity to the image layering and layers of meaning... it's such an ephemeral art."

Gallery director Ron Radford said the gallery's staff worked to restore the collection over the past couple of years in preparation for the exhibition, the fourth in recent years devoted to Australia's Pacific Ocean neighbours including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Kastom: Art of Vanuatu is on in the Orde Poynton Gallery at the National Gallery of Australia until June 16. Entry is free.

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