New research data derived from “Moana” exhibit
This post is about one of the first significant research spin-offs to emerge directly from one of the objects displayed in the Moana exhibit, which will be open to the public until 30 June at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
I am referring to the object pictured here as it appears within its display case in one of the “Atua” halls of the Moana exhibit. This board comes from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachussetts, and its meaning had hitherto been virtually unkown.
The object in question is described, in the PEM’s database, as a “board image for Sukwe (men’s graded rituals), Bank Is. [sic], Vanuatu” (PEM catalogue number E52699). It is recorded as having been collected in 1972 in Motalava, and subsequently donated, in 1995, by no less a controversial character than the recently deceased D. Carleton Gajdusek.* The board’s dimensions are: 2.5 cms thick, 78.8cms long and 9.5cms wide.
Until a few weeks ago, this was all the data available for this object. Due to the strikingly beautiful photograph that was taken of it, the designer of the exhibition catalogue, Ms Natalia Rojas, decided to use it as the cover photo for the Atua section of said tome. Consequently, I wrote up a brief description of it, for the catalogue, which described it in much the same terms, namely, as a board from Motalava that probably represented powerful beings and was related to the Sukwe.
However, thanks to the fact that I distributed images of some of the objects in Moana for which we possessed relatively little information, including the Motalava “spirit board”, the above image eventually made its way to the monitor of my good friend and colleague, the linguist Alexandre François.
Motivated by the relative mystery of the image depicted on this board, Alex dug around in his incredibly rich database of Motalavan and Banks Islands images and information…and came up with an incredible find. In sum, he ran into a photo which he took in recent years on the West coast of the large island of Gaua.
‘the Dancer: name of a customary design or tattoo used by initiated men, representing a dancer with a symmetrical body, and arms raised as in the manly Haw dance’
— Language: Mwotlap, Motalava I., Banks Is, Vanuatu.
Furthermore, the Haw dance which Alex describes was recently recorded by Éric Wittersheim for the documentary Le Salaire du Poète, which was produced on Motalava in collaboration with Alex. A short clip of the Haw dance can be seen in this brief video uploaded by Éric on Youtube.
Alex also provided the following information regarding this video extract:
The hawhaw-ing dancers appear at 00’39” in the background, and dance around the musicians, holding Cycad palms (only allowed to initiated men).
In a follow up message Alex advanced even more information:
I believe that the vertical symmetry of the design (you may want to call it the “Spirit of the Dancer”, because of course it is understood as a Spirit or Supernatural being) reflects the vertical symmetry of the dancer’s body in the prototypical Haw dance. That is, a good Haw-ing dancer will raise his knees up in the same way as he moves his elbows up and down. [I found it hard at the beginning but it’s fun: try it in your living room!]
Often it’s only the leader in the line of dancers who performs the total body movement, while his followers will mostly move their arms. (This is visible from another piece of Eric’s film which is not online).
He also provided this image of his nominal father from Motalava, a man by the name of Moses, as he engages in a hawhaw dance.
For my part, I immediately recognised the Hawhaw dance as being related to a type of dancing from the Torres Islands known locally (in Lo-Toga language) as nehuwe, thereby further confirming that it has links to ritual dancing across the Banks and Torres (at least as far as Motalava, Gaua and the Torres are concerned).
Fortunately, all of the above data reached me just in the nick of time, so I was able to modify the contents of the label that accompanies object E52669 in the Moana exhibition. Hence, for the first time since it was collected, we were able to provide a more accurate description of this board, and in the process generate a set of important new references regarding ritual dancing, grade taking and aesthetic values related to the material and visual cultures of North Vanuatu.
I cannot think of a more fitting and satisfying tribute to the Moana exhibition than the above story. I thank Alex, first and foremost, and the people of Motalava, the Banks and Torres Islands for their collective knowledge, from which they draw an amazing capacity to constantly surprise us with the richness of their creations.