Clash of Two Cultures

By: Wendy Stenberg-tendys Dr.

Bethany regularly receivesinvitations to attend the opening of exhibitions at the prestigious AnnandaleGallery, Trafalgar Street. Built as a Methodist Church in 1860, then usedas a Masonic Hall in the 1920’s, the stately building is now an up marketGallery in a trendy inner city suburb of Sydney, Australia.

Gallery owners have specialized in showingthe best of Australian and overseas modern art. This has earned them anenviable reputation in art circles around the world.

July 22nd seemed exceptionalfrom the outset. The invitation spoke about secret rare art on view for thefirst time, from a remote tropical island of a tiny South Pacific archipelago. Artthat had never before been seen outside Vanuatu.

At the opening a group of nine Ni-Vanuatuartists, dressed in full custom regalia, would perform a sacred ceremonialdance from the remote island of Ambrym.

It all sounded rather mysterious and lotsof fun. Eagerly Bethany arranged with twofriends to attend the opening, before they went to dinner at one of the finerestaurants around Darling Harbour. The girls hadlong ago made the firm decision to either be driven by one of their husbands ordropped off, or go in a taxi, in order to do away with the problem of trying towork their way through the Sydney traffic andfinding a park for the Mercedes-Benz.

“After pushing our way through the usualhubbub of Sydney traffic, wearrived later than we had expected. The strands of lovely island music greeted usas we approached the gallery door," Bethany said. “Sounded asif the South Seashad come to town. Made one think of swaying palms and blue green tropicaloceans. I think my husband and I will take that South Pacific cruise we havebeen promising ourselves," she mused.

Sipping a glass of French champagne, Bethany and her friendsjoined the other guests buzzing with excitement, as they admired thebeautifully carved wooden figures and masks, plus a four metre wooden drum. Theupright tam-tam, one of the world’s largest free standing musical instruments.“This art is very ancient and rare, yet it could be easily mistaken for anypiece of modern artwork," said David Baker the Gallery curator. “There is onlyone piece similar to it in a British museum."

A barely clad figure stepped up to the tam-tamand began a steady methodical beat on the lip of the wooden gong’s face. Astylized face that had been carefully carved to represent an ancestor.? The long slit up the front of the drumallowing the ancestor to speak once more.

Covered from head-to-toe in what looked likea tent of dried leaves, with brightly wooden masks over their faces, topped bychicken feathers, danced four men. ?Withslow rhythmic steps, they moved to the center of the room, chanting in a monotone.Five other men in the full regalia of their secret society danced in the centerof the group. Stomping their feet, chanting and clapping their hands, theymoved as one, to the beat of the ancestor’s voice from the drum.

Shock registered on the Sydney matron’s faces asthe five mature Ambrym men, dressed only with a wide bark belt slung low overtheir hips.? A Namba penis sheath barelycovering the essential part of manhood, as they concentrated on their sacreddance. ?A bright red hibiscus flower perchedjauntily over one ear. They appeared to be unaware of the sensation they werecausing, as the gleaming well formed buttocks of the dancers jiggled up anddown in time to the beat of their dance.

“No women are permitted to touch these menas they are considered taboo," Bethany laughed. ?“It was rather difficult to know just where tolook, when the dancers first entered the room. I haven’t seen that much barebottom since my four children were youngsters."

It is one thing to think of these mendancing in the soft light of a tropical island forest, bare feet pounding outthe ceremonial rhythm on a dirt floor, but to think of them as having just comefrom a modern hotel room, through the Australian winter, braving the Sydney traffic, was a mindexploding experience.

“We were told this is strictly ‘Men’sBusiness’, as any woman witnessing the ceremony accidentally, had to bekilled," Bethany told me. “ Just aswell that doesn’t apply today. They are still taboo though and no woman ispermitted to touch them." Bethany laughed.

In a land of over 153 distinct cultures andlanguages, remote distances and fewmoderncommunication devices, life moves at a different pace in the tropical islandsof Vanuatu, voted theHappiest Country on Earth in 2006. In many locations villagers still live astheir ancestors have done for generations. Education, in an oral tradition, is handeddown from father to son, through dance, songs, carvings and sand drawings.

The Chiefs are beginning to recognize theeducational needs of these remote islands. Many of the younger generation havelost the ability to understand the mystic language of the carved gongs. Thechiefs made the decision to share the secrets of their society and releasedsome of their sacred rare art, setting the art world on its ear. The aim beingto inspire their young people and make them more aware of their ancientculture.

Fewpeople are unaware that the tiny South Pacific neighbor of Australia had such wonderfulsecrets tucked away, in the ‘Must See’ Travel Adventure Destination of theSouth Pacific.?

This ancient society is slowly reaching outfor the benefits of modern civilization. Children dream of becoming pilots,teachers, engineers. Yet, many of the villagers live on under $1 per day. In2007 the government of Vanuatu governmentadmitted they do not have the resources to meet the educational needs of thenation.? Education is low on their listof priorities.?

YouMe Support Foundation and its ChildTrust Fund is one of the few foundations assisting these children. Children whowill never see the inside of a high school classroom without outsideassistance.

Foundationis offering a unique once in a lifetime y. It could changeyour life and it will change the lives of these great kids. This is anopportunity you can’t afford to miss. You can visit these children who will not be afraidto wholeheartedly reach out and embrace the head on collision of two societies.

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