I went on a cruise a few years ago which stopped at a few different islands in the South Pacific, and the best quality wood carvings by far were those we saw in Vanuatu. So it comes as no surprise that in the lead up to our recent trip to Vanuatu, checking out the local carvings was high on the priority list.
The most iconic carving in Vanuatu is easily the Tamtam, or split drum. The Tamtam even features on their 500 Vatu note. The drums were used as a communication tool in each village, both to talk to their own villagers but also to spread messages to neighbouring villages. Each face on a Tamtam represents a level of rank or seniority in their tribal system, so a single face represents a small village chief, a couple of faces a big village chief and so on. Likewise, there is also a system whereby the wood carvers must go through a series of steps to earn the right to be able to carve more and more faces on the Tamtams. One source I’ve read claims there are only 1 or 2 people across the whole of the Vanuatu chain who have earned the right to carve a 6 face Tamtam.
Tiki culture in the States is dominated by Hawaiian imagery, however you do see an occasional split drum or similar slip into the mix, but moreso it comes in a PNG style. I reckon that’s a shame, because the Vanuatu style of carving is clean and stylish, and the carving we brought home looks right at home in the tiki room!