The majority of these recently acquired sculptures are created from the mesh-like fibrous root system of the resilient tree fern. Generally called ‘tamat’, they represent important spirits and are placed under the protective eaves of the home of their high‑ranking owners or at the side of the dance ground among a line of sacred plants.
The works come from the islands of Vanua Lava and Gaua in the Torba province (more commonly known as the Banks Islands) of northern Vanuatu. Both islands had ceremonial societies known as Sukwe or Suque with which these works are associated. They are some of the finest examples to be seen outside of Vanuatu itself.
Several of the sculptures have recognisable human features realised within indigenous style canons that, to our eyes, border on the surreal. The range of imagery includes disembodied faces, lizards and designs resembling body-tattoo markings. The fern figure Tamat metelo, for example, has not only a face on its head but its stylised body also becomes a face. When creating figures, artists of Torba province often reduce the tree fern to its core for the body and keep the mesh sections to sculpt the head, legs and arms, as can be seem on Tamat salwor.
The collection depicts a number of spirits connected to ceremonial societies of the province. The singular stone Tamate rial, meaning ‘eater of men’, is an important object connected to sorcery and was sculpted by an artist with masterful ability in visual form.
These ten works from the Torba province were acquired from the private collection of Paul Gardissat during a visit to Vanuatu last year to seek cultural advice and permission for the exhibition Kastom: art of Vanuatu. Together, they now represent the strongest collection of works from this area in any art gallery. They are also significant in that records exist identifying the indigenous owners or creators of most of these works. Gardissat also provided a generous gift of a Tamate dance mask.
Crispin Howarth Curator, Pacific Art
in artonview, issue 73, Autumn 2013