Nonboi is a name in the language of people in South West Bay Malakula , Vanuatu that has not been in current use in a long time. It means pottery.
I recently travelled with my wife to this out of the way part of Vanuatu at the request of the villagers, to investigate the possibility of reintroducing something that they have long ago had a tradition for but have lost over time. They know they had it partly due to the existence of the name and also because they have been digging up small shards in their bush gardens over many years. One old retired Church elder in the village of Lolow named Masing Venivil, gave me a small piece that had surface decoration on it. I also visited the museum in Port Vila when I was passing through, and saw the collection of shards and old pots collected from around Vanuatu, which included pots from Malakula that had similar colouring to the shard I had received.
My history with this part of the world goes back over 50 years to when my father, the Reverent Nielson Whyte was a missionary in South West Bay, and I was just a small child. While my memories are not strong of this period, the stories and pictures of those times were part of my upbringing.
Just over 12 months ago I received an invitation to return and take a potters wheel (Some years ago my mother had visited and taken some of my pottery, so they knew that I was a potter).
When I got this invitation I put a lot of thought into what might be possible. I also took the time to purchase a book on the traditional pottery techniques of Papua New Guinea and did some serious reading. This is an area that, in the last few hundred years, has not had a pottery tradition, but may have traded for pottery made further north in Santo. This is also a part of Vanuatu that is seen as quite rural. It is a part of Vanuatu famous for its warlike tribes and cannibalism until the missionaries came. They also do not have electricity apart from the local high school generator that is only run from 6 to 9 at night, so an electric wheel would not be so useful. I finally decided to have a kick wheel based on the Leach potters wheel made by a local craftsman and fitted out by a local blacksmith. Towards this end I found plans of the Leach Kick wheel and also bartered some of my pots for an original J.H. Wilson made kick wheel I found in Geelong, which we used as a model to base the new wheel on. I fundraised and also received donations towards this project. This wheel was made, disassembled and then shipped out on a yacht that was sailing that way in July, along with a box of pottery books collected from Australian potters,
I travelled to Vanuatu in late July and spent 2 weeks in South West Bay, which meant flying from Port Vila to Norsup in the North of Malakula Island where we found a truck (4wheel drive ute) to take us across the Island on very rough bush tracks to Lambubu, where a boat had been sent up from South West Bay to meet us. After a three hour trip in increasingly rough wet weather we finally arrived. The next day was spent reassembling the potters wheel that had to be flat packed to go on the boat and chasing down parts that had been left at the Pastors house to complete this task. My next need was to look for clay and make pots. I asked the local villagers to bring me in samples of clay as they knew best where to find it. Due to a sudden death in the Village this process was delayed because of a traditional 5 day mourning period, and the first week also included their 30 year celebrations of Vanuatu’s Independence, so serious workshopping in clay was delayed till the second week we were there. I spent my time looking for clay and collecting black volcanic beach sand that I could mix with the clay to make it better to fire. My aim was to introduce a variety of basic techniques of making pottery, and see what other needs and possibilities there were.
I began with traditional hand-building techniques, and, had made a variety of tools suitable for this purpose based on my research into pottery making techniques of Papua New Guinea which are similar to Vanuatu.
My main aim this trip was to ascertain the viability of making pottery and, the possibility on a future visit, of making a kiln for more sophisticated wares made using local materials.
The response of the Villagers was extremely positive and they soon realised that there was economic potential in making pottery and that it could also fulfil a local need of wares to eat and drink from. I came away with a letter of support from the chiefs, church and School leaders for me to seek further funding and support to set up what can be a self sustaining local industry using only local materials that are free for the taking. Their big need is for further training and a wood-firing kiln.
My vision is to make this an ongoing project where other potters could be part of the development of a viable local pottery. I know there is a lot of interest among the pottery community in Australia in this project and I am sure there are other potters who would be interested in spending time in Vanuatu helping with this work at a later stage. Having been there for two weeks I could clearly see that there is potential for a pottery workshop in South West Bay. I am hoping they can learn to make cooking pots and other items that could be traded or sold. When tourists visit the area, this would be another source of income from pottery and they can send their product to the markets in Port Vila.
I have also over many years collected many sand drawings from Vanuatu. Some my father collected while he was a missionary there. This is a rich source of design that belongs in the area. These designs could be used as decoration on the surface of pottery. I left quite a lot of these drawing with the Pastor for the area.
Our parting farewell from Vanuatu was in the form of a 7.5 rated earthquake while we were in Port Vila, followed by over 20 aftershocks. As we were leaving in the airport there was yet another 6.4 earthquake. So our time in Vanuatu was not without some excitement.
Vanuatu pottery project stage two. 2011
Ken Naki came from Vanuatu in early March and stayed with us for just over a month leaving on the 10th of April. His visit has resulted from my visit to South West Bay Malakula last year in late July~ early August, and was enabled by the generous support of ‘Live and Learn’ environmental education, who paid for his ticket to come. The Uniting church in Queenscliff/Point Lonsdale, who raised funds to support his studies while in Australia, also supported him.
The purpose of this visit was for someone in South West Bay to come and learn pottery from me in my studio on an intensive basis for a month. The idea being that this would provide the groundwork to begin setting up a pottery back home and begin teaching local people the skills needed to make hand made pots from locally dug clay.
Ken spent nearly a month in Port Vila getting his passport and applying for a visa to come to Australia, so in all he was away from home for over two months. This was also his very first trip outside Vanuatu, and has been full of culture shock and new experiences. (His first hot bath; new food most days; cold weather; cars and big buildings; seeing the inside of a working pottery).
In his home village of Labo, Ken is a skilled craftsman and an artist in his own right making traditional masks, as well as looking after the gardens, dogs and pigs. In his youth he spent twelve years in Port Vila making shoes, but eventually chose to return to his village to live and bring up a family.
In my studio we began by exploring various hand building techniques and he soon showed that he has a good deal of aptitude to adapt his skills to new tasks. He produced quite a few very interesting coil pots in the first week or so. We also looked at making slabs and draping these over moulds that he had carved with native designs. We also determined that he will need to begin collecting sand drawings from his part of Vanuatu because it is not culturally permissible to use designs from other areas. Basic mould making was another task we explored so that simple shapes could be easily repeated.
The clay we have been using is earthenware terracotta and white earthenware. These being the closest to what he will be able to use back in Vanuatu, though back home he will need to mix in some of the black volcanic beach sand to open out the clay body which is very fine and sticky, much like a bentonite clay. I found a sieve from the top of a water tank in a hardware for him to take back with him for this purpose.
After we had progressed through a variety of different hand building techniques we moved on to the kick wheel, which Ken found the most challenging, though he persisted, and before he left to go home, was beginning to get the idea. There is one kick wheel for him to practise on back home that was taken out last year.
One weekend we travelled to Beechworth in central Victoria to visit Ric and Judy Pierce at One Tree Hill pottery, where we learnt more useful techniques and were introduced to the clay extruder, though it may be some time before we are able to get a hand extruder out to Vanuatu, Ken was able to see the potential in the machine.
After nearly three weeks of making pots we embarked on a project to make a simple wood-firing kiln out of a 44-gallon drum lined with ceramic fibre. We got some assistance in this from Gerry, the kiln maker in Monbulk who helped cut the drum and ordered in the fibre, after which we put it all together and had a trial firing using wood. Mark Brabham, at Australian Combustion Services Melbourne, also graciously came to the rescue providing a raku burner to assist with the firing. This burner will also go to Vanuatu for use in firing kilns.
We achieved over 800 degrees C just on wood and I finished off the firing with the gas burner. I hope to be able to get up to Earthenware temperatures just on wood so will try to rebuild the base once more and try firing again sometime soon. However having the gas burner as a back up was invaluable.
Our results were surprising, as it turned out that we had over fired somewhat and well and truly melted the earthenware glazes, though not to their detriment. The results were on the whole a great success and most encouraging for the kiln design which may be a good low cost solution to building kilns in Vanuatu. They have a ready supply of 44 gallon drums and mainly need to source the fibre. After this we concentrated on decorating and glazing the rest of the work we had made over the month to fire in my large gas fired kiln. This proved to be a very good firing with great results, which came out of the kiln the day before Ken was due to return to Vanuatu. He was most impressed with the results and has returned home inspired to get on to making pottery in his village. Still he has his work cut out for him. He must start by building a pottery building and then teach some local people to help him.
His visit has inspired some Victorian potters to consider a visit next year in the winter for two weeks to hold workshops, hopefully build a kiln and of course have a holiday in a tropical paradise. I hope to be able to take back a small group of potters next year as a follow up to what has happened this year. Ken and the villagers in SW Bay will need some ongoing support for the next few years until the have reached a level of self sustainability. However, I firmly believe that this is a project that has a high potential for success. The desire to do this has come from the villagers themselves and most of the needed resources are locally available.
I would be happy to hear from any experienced potters who would consider a working holiday visit to Vanuatu next year.