March 05, 2015

The Master Wood Carvers of Ambrym

Ambrym is one of the most fascinating islands I have traveled to in Vanuatu. It is dominated by the active Volcanoes of Marum and Benbow, in the centre (so active that there is an eruption in progress at the moment) surrounded by a huge ash plain and caldera where nothing lives, with the population inhabiting the coastal fringes. The island is steeped in ancient beliefs and Black Magic, and has a very distinct culture apart from the other islands of Vanuatu.

Ambrym has some very skilled wood carvers, creating the large Tam Tams (or Slit Gong Drums) to communicate between villages on the island. You can see Tam Tams throughout Port Vila these days as well, popping up outside of restaurants, banks and Air Vanuatu's headquarters. They have become a symbol of Vanuatu as recognisable as the colourful flag.

I met one of the best carvers from Ambrym in Port Vila, Abel Sailas, and talked to him while he was hard at work creating a mask for an upcoming art exhibition in Noumea, New Caledonia. The interview was conducted mainly in Bislima, and fast Bislama at that (!), so apologies for any translation errors that may have crept in.

Where did you learn to carve?

As a young man I watched the elders in my village Ranuetlam (on the North coast of Ambrym) carve large Tam Tams and ceremonial sculptures. I practiced on some old wood with their tools and I found this was something I could do and really enjoyed. I watched others carving, but was mostly self taught.

The designs belong to the Chief of the village, not anyone can carve them. I asked permission to carve designs such as this Lengnagulong mask I am working on now. This was approved after he saw my skill and I contributed several pigs to him. To carve Tam Tam faces you need to be skilled and pay more pigs as tribute to the chief. Currently I have given enough pigs and yams to be able to carve two faces on a Tam Tam. I only use traditional Ambrym methods and tools to carve, all is done by hand.

A Tam Tam may take me two day or more days to carve and even this carving will take me all today to carve and then polish.

What would happen if you carved a three face Tam Tam statue?

I could not. I do not have the right. It has happened that men without permission have carved Ambrym statues. Not so long ago these people could have been killed, but now their work would be destroyed and the carver fined. Only man Ambrym (men from Ambrym) are able to carve these in the first place and you must have the right to do so.

Where has your work been exhibited?

All over Vanuatu, and now New Caledonia. My work has sold to galleries in France and Australia too.

Recently delievered wood for future carvings

How do you choose your wood?

A truck comes around once a month with local soft wood. I choose which pieces I want by seeing my carving in them, and store them until I can carve them. I look carefully at the grains in the wood, they are important in deciding the type of carving, and where I begin.

This is your full time job?

It is. I work 7 to 5 every day except Sunday. I have been able to take on an apprentice. I sell my work at a Hibernian market stall (opposite Westpac bank, and next to Centre Point in Port Villa) and at the new Vanauatu Handicraft market on Wharf road as well as at exhibitions.

Tell me the Custom story behind the Lengnagulong mask you are carving

This is one of the most famous Kastom (custom) stories from Ambrym. Lengnagulong lived in a wood near the top of the volcano. But the local villagers were jealous of him because he was famous throughout Ambrym for his intelligence and beauty. He told them "You cannot kill me. I will survive wood, stone, metal, even a bow and arrow. The only thing I fear you cannot control, a storm of thunder and lightning".

The Villagers used Kastom practices (FFP: I am guessing this might be Black Magic) to call a severe storm. The storm destroyed the wood that Lengnagulong lived in and the water washed him and the trees through the villages of Konkon, Olal and Magam where the villagers tried to save him but the waters were too strong and he was washed into the sea to drown. He was washed up on the shore of the village Melvat where an old carver found him and took him back to his hut as he was so beautiful. He then carved the first mask of  Lengnagulong.

The mask is still powerful. You can ask Lengnagulong to send his spirit to get things you need, and you will get them.

As you can see the finished Lengnagulong mask was too good for me to let it go to the exhibition in New Caledonia, and I purchased it. The mask really is a thing of beauty, the wood grain accenuates the detailed carving. I have yet to ask Lengnagulong for anything, but I might in the future!

If you are ever in Port Vila, or see an exhibition of Abel's in the Pacific Islands, go along and look at the work of a master carver.

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  1. Hello! For a university project I am doing research into the cultural value of nature. I am looking for a picture to accompany a short piece I am writing about how the people of Ambrym use breadfruit trees to carve tamtams. While looking for an image I stumbled across your page, what an interesting story! I would like to ask you for your permission to use the first or second image, if that is okay with you. It will be used for a report that I have to hand in, and will not be disseminated further than my professors' mailbox :) Greetings, Roos (Leiden university, The Netherlands)

    1. Hi Roos. No problems at all, feel free to use the photos for your project. Interesting subject matter for a project and I hope it goes well! Cheers Simon