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Banks Islands, Torba Province, Vanuatu Melanesia

Grade board late 19th or early 20th century Materials & Technique: sculptures, wood, ochre
Dimensions: 120.2 h x 20.8 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.532

In the Banks Islands, men of high status in the Suque grade-level system would decorate their dwelling house (not the men’s club house, which in this area is called the Gamal) with displays of carved figures and painted boards. According to Speiser [1], the designs on these painted boards were models for, or representations of, sculptures commissioned by a high-ranking man, and were placed near those particular sculptures.
The figural image on this board is still visible and it is possible to visualise how the commissioned work could have looked. The designs on the board communicate the grade level of the owner, and these grade boards are apparently the only form of painting on a two-dimensional surface throughout Vanuatu. This particular board is likely to be over a century old, and is very similar to other examples collected during that period.[2]

[1] Speiser, Felix. & Stephenson, D. Q.  Ethnology of Vanuatu: an early twentieth century study / Felix Speiser; translated by D.Q. Stephenson Crawford House Press, Bathurst, N.S.W.:  1990 (1921). Pp 100 & 354.

[2] Three—now held at the Museum der Kulturen, Basel (Vb 4109, 4099 and 4115)—were collected by Felix Speiser in 1912 at Gaua. See pl 92, Speiser (1921), 1990. 

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013

From: Crispin Howarth Kastom: Art of Vanuatu National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013