Vanuatu: Reviving Kastom

During the colonial period, much of traditional life for Pacific Islanders was destroyed.

Vanuatu Erromango Map

Vanuatu Erromango Map
Creator: Design Unit © Australian Museum

After independence, many Pacific states have encouraged the renewal of the islanders' traditional knowledge, practices and skills - a return to Kastom.

The island of Erromango, in southern Vanuatu, received its first Christian missionaries in the middle of the 19 th century. Over the next 50 years, the decimation by introduced European diseases continued and the island was transformed by missionary teaching. European interventions into Erromangan life led to the loss of many traditional arts, knowledge and skills, and there are few examples of traditional Erromangan arts and crafts in the national collections of Vanuatu. Following Independence in 1980, the national government has encouraged the revival and renewal of Kastom.

Sophie Nemban of Erromango is the Vanuatu Cultural Centre's women's fieldworker for the island. She is an important figure there in promoting and coordinating cultural revival, especially traditional female crafts such as making bark cloth. In April 2003, The Australian Museum Society provided funds for her to study the Museum's collection of 532 objects from her island. In her report she wrote:

'I found inside the Pacific storerooms many things from my island which have disappeared and we no longer make. I was overwhelmed. I took many photos of the different designs on the old leaf skirts and also of two particular mat types which I have heard about from my grandmother, but have never seen before.

The big excitement of the Erromango collection was the early bark cloths with beautiful designs. Yes, I found many things I had heard about but never seen before...

We women can learn from this and make these valuable things again to assist the culture of Erromango to rise up again.' Sophie Nemban


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