TEKS | Promoting & Safeguarding Biocultural Diversity Through the Arts in Northern Vanuatu

Text by Dely Roy Nalo and Thomas Dick, Photos by Cristina Panicali and Sarah Doyle, with contributions by Ham Maurice Joel, Augustin Leasley, and Len Jacob Tafau

Mar 28, 2018 · 8 min read

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Traditional: Habits and ways built over the years that are flexible and change in relation to new circumstances and situations

Entertainment: An opportunity for the people to express and adjust, to adapt, safeguard kastom music and acts using contemporary arts in the face of overwhelming foreign influences

Kastom (custom): Practices that bind people together in relation to the land, their leaders, and the environment

Support: Using appropriate tools to promote and support positive kastom and traditional practices in ways that are respectful of our people

In the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, over 130 different languages are spoken. With its population of approximately 263,000, this means Vanuatu has the highest rate of per capita linguistic diversity on the planet. For many people in Vanuatu, one of these languages is the first language that they learn from their mother. These languages — and the knowledge and practices that they represent and articulate — are important expressions of cultural diversity. As the cash economy penetrates deeper and deeper into the islands of Vanuatu, communities are identifying the need for alternative, locally based approaches to the promotion and preservation of important traditional wisdom practices — including dances, music, songs, and stories — and connecting these with contemporary music and dance.

One of the ways that communities in Vanuatu are responding is through the Traditional Entertainment and Kastom Support (TEKS) unit of Further Arts — a local NGO working with communities on arts and cultural projects. Dely Roy Nalo, an Indigenous woman of Vanuatu and Kiribati descent, founded TEKS in 2011. Dely conceived TEKS to provide space and equal opportunity for traditional performers to express and showcase their artistic talents in a local cultural festival on Espiritu Santo Island in northern Vanuatu. At the same time, TEKS also provides support to practitioners of kastom and those communities that safeguard its values.

Dely speaks fluent English, French, and the local creole Bislama (the lingua franca of Vanuatu) in addition to her father’s vernacular language, Mwerlap. She says, “I feel that I understand enough about diverse Vanuatu cultures and that I have a reasonable understanding of many foreign cultures. I created TEKS as a unit to serve as a bridge between the different conceptual worlds.”

TEKS supports a range of traditional wisdom practices such as dances, music, songs, stories, carving, weaving, painting, drawing, and fabric art. There are two principal ways that TEKS engages with communities to support these activities: firstly, by assisting village groups to organize and host Mini Arts Festivals (MAFs); and secondly, by documenting these MAFs through co-produced audiovisual content in vernacular languages.

Dely explains, “My idea is that if each culture can understand or at the very least acknowledge each other, a platform can be set for mutual respect.” TEKS aspires to be there to facilitate that platform and foster the connections.

At the time of preparing this photo essay (March 2015), Vanuatu was severely hit by a tropical cyclone, which affected more than seventy percent of the population through the destruction of ninety percent of homes, gardens and infrastructure. Many people were left without adequate shelter, food, and safe drinking water. The Further Arts office was completely destroyed along with most of the equipment in it. Without the office facility to provide stability to TEKS, its work with communities, local youth, artists, and musicians is unlikely to continue. All the communities that TEKS works with are in the process of rebuilding their lives but need as much support as possible to restore healthy cultural and lifestyle practices. People wishing to donate for the reconstruction of Further Arts and TEKS initiatives can do so at http://rebuilding.furtherarts.org/

Thomas Dick is the founder and current chairman of Further Arts, an NGO based in Port Vila, Vanuatu that works with local communities on arts and cultural projects. Further Arts’ main objective is to empower Ni-Vanuatu to develop long-term social and commercial enterprises in the industries of creative arts, agriculture, and communications that are culturally, socially, environmentally, and financially sustainable.

Cristina Panicali is a prize-winning freelance photographer based in Italy. She has been traveling through Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania to tell photo stories on socio-cultural and environmental issues. In 2012–2013 she was in Vanuatu to document the “Music Bridges” project, a music and culture exchange among musicians from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.

Sarah Doyle is manager and a photographer of Further Arts’ Nesar Studio in Port Vila, Vanuatu. The word “nesar” (from one of the vernacular languages of Vanuatu) refers to the place where all custom ceremonies and dances are performed. It also refers to an area where chiefs, mothers, and youth can meet to discuss village affairs. It’s the area where the traditional arts are carried out.

Dely Roy Nalo is a visual artist and cultural fieldworker based in Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island. She works with rural and remote communities on cultural and artistic initiatives through her project TEKS. She has gained recognition for TEKS at local and national levels and continues to expand its international network of cultural artists and professionals.

Further Reading

Further Arts: Using Arts and Culture for social transformation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.furtherarts.org

Further Arts Facebook Page. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/FurtherArts

Further Arts YouTube Channel (n.d) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/user/furtherarts

Future Arts. (n.d.). TEKS Program Activities. Retrieved from http://www.furtherarts.org/teks-program/

Dickson, T. (2013). Gender, Creativity, and Cultural Heritage: A Case Study of the Vanuatu Women’s Water Music [Resources — UNESCO Gender Equality and Culture]. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/RESOURCES_ThoTho_Dickson_A_Case_Study_of_the_Vanuatu_Wom.pdf

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Working to sustain the biocultural diversity of life — the world’s precious heritage of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity.


Thank you for reading Langscape Magazine on Medium! Langscape is an extension of the voice of Terralingua. It supports our mission by educating the minds and hearts about the importance and value of biocultural diversity. Visit https://terralingua.org/langscape-magazine/home/