Maghe ni hivir
early 21st century
Bogor Village, Ambrym Island, Malampa Province, Vanuatu
Materials & Technique: sculptures, tree fern, ochre
Vanuatu has a unique history. It was for the greater part of the twentieth century an Anglo-French ruled condominium—more affectionately known as the pandemonium. The colonial influences of two major powers surprisingly did little to affect the traditional arts of the islands of Malakula, Pentecost and Ambrym. The large circular eyes of the recently acquired, imposing sculptural work Mague ne hiwir are the foremost peculiarity of art from Ambrym, one of the volcanic islands in the centre of the archipelago.
Although the different cultural areas of Vanuatu share many characteristics, they also have their own distinct styles. Ambrym, as elsewhere in Vanuatu, has a distinctive complex social hierarchy in which men and women work towards attaining successively higher levels of prestige. Each heavily ritualised level, or grade rank, has its own associated arts. For instance, a Mague figure, such as the one acquired by the Gallery, is created for the rituals that accompany ascension to the ninth grade or level . Reaching such a high level also comes at great financial expense to the individual—usually in the form of the ubiquitous ni-vanuatu currency, the pig.
Mague figures today are made for the same traditional purpose as they have been for generations. Although their form has subtly changed over time, carvers require an intimate knowledge of the ghost world of the ancestors; they must also be properly acquainted with the particular spirit that represents a grade to effectively render it as sculpture. Mague figures are carved from resilient tree fern, a layer of ochre is then applied and designs are carefully painted on its surface.
The Gallery’s Mague figure, Mague ne hiwir, was carved for the north Ambrym chief Gilbert Bangtor when he reached the ninth level. It is one of the largest and most sculptural Mague figures produced in recent years. The sculpture takes advantage of the natural tapering form of the fern from which it was carved, making this enormous ghost-like figure seem to float as if weightless. From its weathered and dilapidated surface, Mague ne hiwir may look very old but it was carved less than 20 years ago. The surface ochres naturally fall away over time and these sculptures are rarely repainted—perhaps symbolic of the transition of life.
After chief Bangtor’s succession to a higher grade, the Mague ne hiwir’s functional life ended. The work was later placed onto the art market in 2007 by its indigenous owners, finding its way into the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Pacific arts.
Curator, Pacific Art
in artonview Winter 2009 issue 58
in artonview, issue 58, winter 2009
The large circular eyes of this imposing work are a classic trait of art from Ambrym Island— at lower-level grades, figures may only be represented by eyes, then a development of the head until in the higher grades the entire body is depicted. This figure is of enormous proportions and yet its tapering form appears to be floating as if weightless. It is the most sculptural Maghe figure to have been produced in recent years, for a grade system of 13 levels. It was commissioned to mark Chief Bangtor of Bogor’s achievement in entering the ninth-grade level of the Maghe system.
During the grade-taking event, the Maghe ni hirvir figure would be displayed on the Ranhara dance ground beneath a platform upon which the grade-taker dances in triumph and earns the grade title, or name, of Gerlam.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013
From: Crispin Howarth Kastom: Art of Vanuatu National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013