Focus: The Solomon Islands
In a world where China's influence continues to grow and it's relationship with Taiwan continuously evolves, it is sometimes easy to forget what lies off of Taiwan's other coast: the Pacific. With that in mind, our focus this month aims to present a small taster of the magic contained in this vast oceanic continent by introducing the Solomon Islands, which eRenlai visited along with the Ricci Institute in 2012 whilst filming a documentary. Without further ado, we hope you can let the waves of words, sounds, and images, tickle your senses and sweep you away.
We begin our journey with an account from Benoit Vermander about his feelings towards the Pacific and how it slowly changed the course of his academic career. We also learn of the reasons behind the Ricci Institute's decision to film a documentary in the Solomon Islands. As with a trip to any country, our journey to the Solomons proper begins with a visit to Honiara and the Pacific Arts Festival with its vibrant energy. In this festival it is possible to witness beautiful displays of traditional dance. There is more to traditional culture in the Solomons than just dance, however, and we dive into the deep end, learning about shell money and ancestor worship, amongst other living traditions. Next on we delve a little deeper and discover some of the darker aspects of cultures clashing, as we learn about the effect that missionaries had on traditional Solomon culture. Searching for a more positive view of religious influence, we visit the St. Joseph Tenaru secondary school and get a taste of the challenges that face the school. Finally, we visit one of the most curious and mysterious groups of people living in the Solomon Islands: the Langalanga, who live in man-made island structures in lagoons.
Photographing a dance is never an easy task, photographers have to use a rigid frame to constantly capture moving bodies. Dancers are sometimes close, sometimes far, they sometimes go left, and sometimes right, at times they crouch, and at times they leap. Often, as you confidently press down on the shutter button, the dances suddenly change their moves, and spill out of the frame. Something that happens even more often is that when you press the shutter, you don't get the whole person: you might cut off an arm, a leg, or even a head if you can't anticipate the next movement; this makes pressing the shutter button an exercise in (good or bad) luck. However, this randomness can also bring about unexpected surprises; these blurs created as the dancers move their bodies trace the movements of the dance, and produce photos full of dynamism.
For a novice photographer like myself, capturing these moments imbued with rhythm is obviously harder than hard, so when shooting in the Pacific Festival of Arts, it seemed like the dancers and I were performing our own particular play: "You run I follow". But, because of my love for dancing, even though I failed quite regularly, I felt like my enthusiasm could overcome the difficulties; if I pressed the shutter button a few more times, eventually there would be a beautiful figure captured and retained in a moment of extraordinary luck.
For the people of Oceania, dance is not only a form of performing art, it's also a part of their culture and life; to dance is to share one's culture. This is probably what made my experience enjoying their performance all the more special; they broadened my horizons, and allowed me to discover the beauty of a different world. No matter if it was the performance on the opening night of the ceremony on the grass football field, or the performances on the "Pacific Stage" on successive dates, they were all breathtaking spectacles. The bodies of the Oceania dancers were like a work of art of sorts: suntanned, powerful, rough, and full of natural unruliness; smooth contours, slender shapes, and fair and delicate skin, are not the standards for beauty here.
With a rhythm brimming with power accompanied by a melody composed of traditional instruments and the voices of singers, these performances were just like the fireworks that were set off every night of the festival, bursting out with glorious vitality, and moving people profoundly. I still remember when I was in front of the dancers, totally absorbed, lost in the continuous action of pressing the shutter button. I could see their hard-earned beads of sweat drip to the floor, and yet they still had a full smile on their faces, without a trace of weariness. Occasionally our eyes would connect and we would smile at each other... these wonderful moments have become the most unforgettable memory in my life.
Watch an excerpt of the Opening Ceremony for the Festival of Pacific Arts
Sitting nearby his canoe Thomas speaks more at length of his sense of cultural loss. Like the rest of his family and the whole village, he defines himself as a Catholic. But he speaks of the missionaries of the ancient time with a thinly veiled resentment: "They took everything away from us... they were very clever... They alienated us from our customs by making us afraid that our ancestral ways would lead us to death, and also by pointing out that the sacrifice of pigs and other rituals were all very expensive. They took away the skulls, and dumped them into the bush... They told us that they was only God, no spirits or ancestors... No, we cannot come back to the past, we cannot retrieve ancient sacrificial ways. We would be afraid to do so. If they had only suppressed bad customs.... But they took everything away, the good with the bad."
One of the lineage ancestor, a woman coming from the island of Bougainville, is supposed to have been the one having introduced shell money, the making of which the Langalanga people are reputed for. We accompany some women of the village to a neighboring island where they gather shells, and we witness the process of preparing shells into long strings, white, black, red, which will be given as bride price or used for other occasions.
The shell used is first broken into small pieces. A flint tool, fixed on to a drill, serves to bore a hole in the fragment. These small pieces are threaded and the string thus made is progressively smoothed. Some islanders have started a kind of advocacy movement, pleading for the recognition of shell money as an alternative national currency. Actually, Malaita shell money is only one of the forms of traditional currency used for exchanges of goods such as canoes among different ethnic communities, payments for bride price, or settling of disputes and sealing reconciliation. Bird feathers, dog teeth, porpoise teeth were also accounted for. Also, fossilized clam shell rings were in use in the western Solomon Islands.
Thomas, our host in the lagoon village, intones a eulogium of past customs. He demonstrates to us how the bride price was negotiated, announced and offered, strings of shell money lying on the ground, and I cannot but feel a bit uneasy: I do sense the beauty of the traditions he narrates and the loss of which he deplores, but I also sense the burden that was imposed on women, whose use value and chastity were evaluated and publicized in such a way.
But a moment later, I feel truly moved when Thomas makes me visit, in the part of the village where only men were able to gather, the ruins of a hut where the skull of a deceased custom priest still lies on a stone. In ancient times, the body was decaying on the ground, embalmed with leaves, for seven days, before the skull was introduced in the hut through a special door, different from the one used by the living. At one point, Thomas starts to speak to the skull in this familiar, conversational and yet deferential tone which I have heard in Tafalong – the same voice you use for elders and for ancestors, gently informing them of the coming of a stranger, and telling them that they have nothing to worry about. The depth and familiarity of the relationship between the living and the ancestral world resonate deeply in my heart.
Photos by B.V.
Canoes and boats are gathered at the wharf and on the shore. Several delegations have made the journey on boats reconstructed from past designs and techniques, be they aboriginal or dating from the early European navigators, thus testifying to the revival of seafaring throughout the Pacific. Such revival speaks of a quest for identity, a mix of modern sporting, and adventurous spirit with a fascination for a natural lifestyle and traditions, of a thirst for collective endeavors bathed within the "feel' and the "beat" of the ocean. Several ships offer the participants a short cruise along the shore. On the deck of the "Pacific Voyager" I dream of longer journeys under a sky of endless blue...
Seafaring was intense among the various islands of the Solomon archipelago. Flying away from headhunters some groups navigated along the coast till they encountered a safe haven, at short distance of which they built artificial islands offering a safe refuge, or else they migrated to adjacent islands. People also paddled to places where they could dive for shells, trade shell money and make marriage alliances. Canoes of various sizes were used according to the length and the purpose of the trip. Boatbuilding is active in the Malaita Island. It is one of the main activities of the Langalanga people, whose lagoon we visit once we arrive in Malaita – after a three-to-four-hour boat ride from Honiara.
Langalanga people are known for being mobile and industrious. A missionary has recorded the testimony of an old man: "We Langalanga people are perched like birds on branches. We have no land of our own, except our hand-made isles. We take off to do our fishing, to go to the gardens or markets on the mainland, to barter and to find bride price for marriage. Then we fly back to our nesting branch, and perch there till the next need arises."
The lagoon itself lies in dreamy silence, its water as clear as the sky, lush forests pressed against the sea. Still, the artificial islands on which people live - the oldest supposed to be built fifteen generations ago – remind us that the landscape is man-made after all, and is loaded with history: the lagoon was first populated by castaways and refugees who were trying to protect themselves against invasions. In Busu village where we stay, eleven different lineages, from different geographical origins, are still accounted for, this for a population of around 500 people.
In Lilisiana village, Malaita Island
Photos by Cerise Phiv
Let me admit it: Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, situated on the Guadalcanal Island, does not strike the visitor with awe. Cavernous Chinese shops filled with all kinds of goods, administrative buildings and houses in concrete scattered around the roads that run parallel to the coastline, commercials for "Solomon Telekom" and the "SolBrew" beer, the two brands that seem to monopolize the advertising expenditures of the country... nothing that really draws the attention. On the hills, a monument adorned with granite plaques recalls the naval battles that ravaged the island during WWII. Modest but numerous Adventist, Catholic and Protestant churches are landmarks all along the way. In the haven and on the beaches, carcasses of warships still lay down, giant ghostly presences. But there is also a kind of softness in the atmosphere, a mixture of gentleness and restraint in people's conduct that, from the start, intrigues and seduces the newcomer.
In Honiara, a wide field has been surrounded by high fences in preparation for the festival, and is divided into two villages – traditional houses hosting on the one side the different provinces and cultural groups from SI, on the other the delegations from abroad, among them the Taiwanese one. A vast public, mainly local, attends the dance and music performances, looks at the handicrafts for show or for sale, marvels at the similarities and differences of languages and customs witnessed from one island to another.
I am usually a bit dreary of festivals and other public events, but this time I find myself thoroughly enjoying the show. I especially like to stay in the SI village, with the huts under the shadow of the giant trees, and to watch the performances offered by tribal groups from the mountains and the coast. The dancers from Isabel Island are my favorites.
Contacts are easy and relaxed. Dancing, panpipes and drums, tattoos, weapons, canoes... I enjoy myself like a child, far away from the megacity of Shanghai where I usually live. Near the main venue of the festival, the little village of Doma, right on the seashore, offers performances from the various tribes living in Guadalcanal Island. Children play on the sand, the music of the drums and that of the waves join into one. The Pacific starts to operate its magic.
Not far away, within walking distance of the fishing village of Lilisiana, the festival gathers local people between the seashore and a lake. The setting is modest, but groups are coming from far away villages, some of them from the mountain bush, and other from the coast. Mathilde, a woman form the Lau tribe, tells me that she takes care alone of a plot of land, where she cultivates cabbage. Her English is quite good: she has worked for five years for a Catholic NGO, she tells me, and in 1997 she even went to the World Youth Day in Paris. She directs the dancers' troop of her village, and performs with much gusto and sense of humor.
Photos by B.V.
The following video is an interview and a performance by Arasuka'aniwara, a panpipe collective from the Solomon Islands:
This video is currently not available for readers in Mainland China.
I have been living in Taiwan since 1992, but, like most inhabitants of the island, I have been turning westwards more often than eastwards. And when I was leaving on research trips, most of the time they took me to southwest China, to remote mountainous areas, to study religious rituals and social changes, seemingly as far away from the Pacific world as possible. Still, a few months after my arrival in Taiwan, I spent some time in Taitung County, and, since then, the Pacific coastline entered my vision and my imagination. As the years went by I returned more frequently to Eastern Taiwan, as if drawn by a mysterious force leading me away from what had been my center of gravity. In 2008, I spent around 4 months of rest in Tafalong, an Amis village in Hualien County. That was a hot summer, and there were few trees around. I was often lying down, trying to recover from the heat as well as from the state of exhaustion that had led me to this refuge. When I was able to, I wandered around, most of the time in the early morning or in the late afternoon, and later on I painted – painted the fields, the mountains and the houses that were surrounding me, painted the feelings of heat and exhaustion which were sometimes overwhelming, and painted also the stories, chants and myths I heard. I also listened to family tales and to ancestors' genealogies. The documentary we subsequently produced with the Renlai team is called "On the Fifth day, the Tide Rose", referring to the chant that describes the deluge from which the first couple that inhabited the village escaped. I still remember the struggle against heat and exhaustion, my reactions to the personal and collective stories I was listening to, the strange and enchanting beauty of this part of Eastern Taiwan, situated between two mountain ranges, and the mysterious attraction of the sea nearby. You do not see the ocean from Tafalong, but the Pacific is waiting a few kilometers away, like a giant, threatening and captivating presence. You do not see the ocean in the paintings created at that time, but it is hidden into them – for the Ocean is the primal force that made me come with these tiny islets of ink, colors and paper scattered among the Sea of Unknowing.
Along the years, the experience of standing on the Eastern seashore gave rise to a pervading feeling: I started to see the Pacific Ocean not only as a physical but as a "mystical" space as well; and reading more about the Pacific world I realized intimately that its immensity and the experience of its crossing had inspired in-depth spiritual experiences expressed through stories, myths, poems, music and epics; its borders and islands have witnessed the coming and melting of all the world's mystical traditions breaking along its shore wave after wave; it is ultimately one of the privileged spaces where humankind has refined and chanted the experience and "resonance" of the Divine. The commonality of such spiritual experience is sometimes summarized by the term of "oceanic feeling", though such wording remains open to challenges and controversies. The metaphors of "depth", "abyss', 'water", "resonance', "oneness" and "circularity" also find special echo through the physical experience specific to the Pacific world. Linguistic and musical expression, mystical experience, literary and artistic metaphors, and cross-cultural synthesis here melt into one.
And Taiwan is a point of departure, of melting and of destination of the stories weaved by the waves...
But does Taiwan's youth, especially its indigenous youth, nurture a sense of belonging to the Pacific world? Does its original connection with this open world encourage its creativity, its perception of the "resonance" that related stories, music and art forms take throughout this oceanic interchange? Such questions have been shared and debated by more and more people, as Taiwan's quest for meaning and spiritual depth has intensified and evolved during the last ten years or so. The quest for the Pacific connection (a quest often inchoative and ambiguous,) has been part of a shifting Taiwanese identity. Taipei Ricci Institute and Renlai have been actors in such endeavors, and have gathered a wealth of material on Taiwanese indigenous people and Pacific arts and stories, accumulated through filmed interviews, field trips and documentary records of international conferences. Ricci Institute and Renlai have also played a role in the formation of the Taiwan Pacific Studies Association, and have led groups of indigenous youth to Canada and to Fiji. This is how the project of making a documentary revolving around Taiwan's indigenous youth and the Pacific took shape – and this is how I went to the Solomon Islands in the summer of 2012. The timing of our trip coincided with the 11th Pacific Arts Festival that was drawing Pacific islanders from the entirety of the Melanesian and Polynesian worlds. Therefore the experience was twofold: it was an authentic meeting with the Solomon archipelago, and also an encounter with the diversity of cultures and people that together weave into one the Pacific family. And indeed, feelings of diversity and of commonality were continuously intertwined during all the encounters that took place during our time in the Solomon Islands.
During the summer of 2012, while filming for the documentary Writings that Weave Waves, I had the chance to spend ten nights at the St Joseph Tenaru school dormitory. The St Joseph Tenaru Secondary School is located in the outskirts of Honiara, on farm land, and is managed by Marist brothers mostly coming from Papua New Guinea. The school now boasts 425 students majoritarily between 13 and 17 years old. At the eve of the start of school, we interviewed the then principal, Brother John Tukana who told us about the educational and cultural challenges he encountered during his three years spent at St Joseph.
This documentary shows how aborigines in Taiwan, especially the younger generation, express and live their identity, while linking their narrative to the world of Oceania, which their ancestors contributed to develop, and where aboriginal people nowadays struggle to express their cultural, social, political and spiritual self-perception. In short, it is about the flow and exchange of experiences and stories (the ever-changing narrative weaved by the waves of the Ocean) that enrich and mix into one our local and global identities. The Oceanic continent both separates and gathers together the people who inhabit it.
For the Pacific Ocean is not only a physical entity but a “storied” space as well: its immensity and the experience of crossing it have inspired in-depth stories, myths, poems, music and epics; its borders and islands have witnessed the rise and fall of cultural and spiritual traditions breaking along its shore, wave after wave.
Taiwan is a point of departure, a meeting point, and a destination for the stories weaved by the waves. This documentary aims at nurturing in Taiwan’s youth, especially in its indigenous youth, a sense of belonging within the Pacific world, while encouraging their creativity, their appreciation of the variety of the cultural resources offered by other Austronesian people, and its perception of the “resonance” that related stories, music and art forms inspire throughout this oceanic interchange.
Thus the filming of this documentary really started in Vancouver Island, Canada where some of our protagonists met with First Nations during a cultural exchange where both groups performed their traditional dances and songs. Then we get a glimpse of the way aboriginal traditions are preserved and transmitted in villages on the eastern coast of Taiwan and we travel through the Melanesian and Polynesian world with scenes and stories filmed during the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts, held in Honiara, Solomon Islands, this year.
Director: Cerise Phiv
Co-director: Benoit Vermander
Image: Cerise Phiv, Amandine Dubois, Yubax Hayung, Wilang Watah, Takun Neka
Editing: Cerise Phiv，Amandine Dubois
Languages: Chinese, English, Spanish
Subtitles: English, Chinese
Watch the trailer here
Readers in China can watch it here
The Premiere will take place at the National Central Library in Taipei on Tuesday November 27th at 5pm as part of the International Conference organized by the Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies. You can join the facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/129160723900797/