On Christmas day, my fianc'e and I had lunch with my family. Then, at that time when you normally retire to the couch, watch something crappy on TV, or tinker with whatever gifts you got, we grabbed our things and headed to the airport. Our destination was Vanuatu, a very small tropical island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, located about a 5 hour flight from our home in Melbourne. It was a holiday for us with 4 of our friends and two kids. The aim was to relax, swim, eat, wind down, enjoy the weather, and see what came as we just went with the flow - but there was one other goal that street artist Rone and myself had in mind.
Money is used to buy a lot of things when it comes to travel. Flights can cost a lot, especially if you are in Australia and travelling to far away lands. There are accommodation costs, transfers, car hire, food, and useless tourist crap you don’t need - overpriced snacks at airports, replacing lost sunglasses and flip flops, buying powder for that rash you got, buying sunscreen that you forget to re-apply. Mostly though, you try to buy experiences, be it snorkelling, boat tours, fancy dinners, day trips, whatever you choose. Some experiences, however, cannot be bought with dollars and cents (or Vanuatu VATUs as they use). The journey starts with your willingness to ask around and try to find what you seek. What we sought were some walls to beautify, some people to meet, and some memories to make. And we found ourselves one such experience during our time in Vanuatu.
It is an amazing country with the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Everyone waves at you - I mean EVERYONE. As you drive by, whenever you make eye contact, waving. At first it was weird to get used to, then I got kinda too into it and was throwing some over-excited waves and looking like a real tourist. They play it cool, so I toned it down. It’s great to drive by a field of crops and 10 dudes waving machetes at you while smiling. That’s the other thing, The machete is such a regular tool over there, it may as well be a Swiss army knife; the casual machete is a look that has really been nailed down by the Vanuatu people.
This boat ran into some rocks about a year ago by its owner ( an expat who lives there). He had it righted and then repaired during the year only to do it again a year later, this time stuck solid. So it now exists as a sweet pontoon to swim out to and jump off. Locals sometimes climb the mast and launch from the top even.
Rone and I both paint murals for a living (among other things), and we wanted to find somewhere we could paint one, with the condition that it had to be something we could do to add to the area, be sensitive to the surroundings, and involve the local community. From what we know, there are no kind of public space creative-type initiatives, and definitely not public art projects in Vanuatu, because there is no public art there; the closest thing is signage, which is mostly printed ads for Western products, and some very basic hand-written signs to promote roadside fruit stands and the like.
We drove around enjoying our holiday but were always on the lookout for a possible location that we could ask around to discuss our work and for permission to work on it. On the second day, Rone spotted this building (above) across an open plain next to a church in a small village about 25 minutes from the main city of Port Villa.
We stopped and chatted with a group of older men who sat in the shade by the building to discuss what we were hoping to do. With some broken English back and forth, we produced a laptop and phones to show them pictures of what we wanted to do. Rone’s goal was to photograph a girl from the village and create one of his amazing portraits using that image, And I wanted to do a lettering piece, either providing a greeting or a sign to identify the area.
We found out that this village we had stopped at was known as MELEMAAT. As the story goes, it was a gift to the original inhabitants in ancient times. After the formation of the islands came about through huge volcanic eruptions, this area provided fertile land, flowing water, and a place for them to establish their village.
So we had a name. I decided that would be my goal, to create a sign bearing the name of the village so that those passing by could identify it as its own entity. We asked if the village elders we had met could introduce us to someone in the village that Rone could use as his subject, and we were taken deep into the area, through winding roads, between hundreds of huts and tents, filled with people laughing, telling stories, cooking and just generally being happy - and all waving of course.
We were introduced to a large group of ladies who were playing cards and looking after an array of children and some brightly coloured chickens. One of the women brought forward her daughter Johanna - a shy girl with beautiful eyes who was perhaps only 15, spoke only French, but held the same kind-hearted demeanour of everyone else we had met in our travels. Along with the elder who had brought us to them, we explained the plan for the walls of the Community Centre, and showed the type of work Rone creates. They were all very impressed, but there was a slight confusion as to why we would want to do such work and if there would be a fee. When we explained that we were on holiday and that we are artists back home, that we would buy all the materials and the village could keep what was left over, they were possibly even more confused as to why, but very grateful and appreciative. To be allowed into their village was an honour in itself. They were so welcoming and open to hearing our ideas. Even with a slight language barrier, it was a very comfortable exchange.
We were told to come back Monday to paint, as tomorrow was Sunday, and the entire village would be at church. This gave us time to plan our design, gather materials, and in my case, get really sunburnt to make the day of painting just that much more challenging, and to source materials. We went to the big hardware store on the island, which was amazing in itself - the kind of place where the guy at the paint mixing station wears a back brace to protect him while lifting heavy things, but wore no shoes. Right alongside him was a wall of brand new machetes (obviously).
We planned out a colour scheme, figured out other basic needs, and went for it.
We rolled in at 8:30am to try and work as much as we could before the hottest part of the day. We went for a 60/40 spilt on the color layout - a style that we had seen on the very few painted buildings that are around in Vanuatu. It worked well as there is a natural line where the cinder block lower section finished and the upper rendered section began. Friendly machete man (below) assisted in all of our paint can opening needs.
I didn’t get a photo ’cause it happened so fast, but the application of the background color was assisted by 5 or 6 of the guys from the village who went at it like crazy. Two of them even scurried along the bottom off the wall and tore out all the long grass that was encroaching on the wall space. Once we sorted that, they all took a spot in the shade of the tree and observed.
Turns out that the guy we had met the day before had announced at the church service that some new friends of the village from Australia were coming to paint the community centre. This meant that everyone knew what was going on, and at different times of the day, we had up to 100 onlookers as we worked; at other times just those that could fit in the shade. We were the only ones dumb enough to stay working in the sun, but at around 12:30pm, we had to pull the pin - the whole wall was now in full-blasting sunlight, and the heat was intense. So we downed tools and told them we would take a break to go swim. One of the elders stood up and shouted “break time” and everyone stood up and disappeared back into the shade of the village. We got in the van and went to find food and a place to swim. We took a three hour break to wait for the sun to get lower - which it did - and we returned to power through the rest of the work.
To help fill in the bulk areas as I marked them out, I enlisted the help of our travel companions, consisting of my fianc'e Mo, Alice (Rone’s wife), and our friends Rangi5 and Hannah (whosw two children played with kids from the village while we worked). We were brought fresh-cut pineapple and cold water by people from the village who continued to come and go.
It truly was an amazing feeling to be doing something we love, in a place that could only be described as paradise, surrounded by these beautiful people. I had to pinch myself a few times (I also had to spend the next day in bed with sunstroke, lucky I don’t dwell on the negative).
I was asked during the course of the day to incorporate an image of a lizard that is native to the area, and a very distinct leaf that grows in abundance in Vanuatu, which I happily did, and it fit perfect in the space at each end. I myself am constantly blown away by Rone’s work, but it was particularly amazing to watch the looks on the faces of people as they saw an image evolve of someone that belonged to the village that they knew. Johanna herself was quite shy and avoided coming to watch the process, but once we were done, she did come down to see and pose with the wall.
An amazing part of this which we didn’t realise until it was brought up by a local that lived there, is that the culture of these villages has a sentiment that you are raised here and everyone contributes, then as you grow and build a life, you do so in the same village. In painting this image of Johanna, capturing her at this age, only a teenager, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that her children, and even grandchildren will look upon this wall in years to come. I hope that my call out to the MELEMAAT Village will be meeting point for future generations also. We were continually thanked throughout the day, when in reality, we were the ones receiving such a positive opportunity.
At the end of the day, the original guy that we spoke to which started this whole thing off gathered everyone around while he had us line up in front of the wall.
On behalf of the Mellemaat village, he wished us a safe and happy New Year, and to thank us for the gift of this wall to the village. Then without any real instruction or organisation, he said, “We thank you!” and the entire crowd of around 70 right away filed past us along the line shaking each of our hands and saying thank you - men, women, and children of all ages. This point in my life was undoubtably the most moving experience that creating art has brought me. A memory I will never forget.
Money can’t buy an experience like this, but it can buy some paint and brushes - the rest is up to you.