We are now officially halfway through our trip around the world through art. Our artwork today is one I had the pleasure of seeing firsthand on my New York trip over the summer. Our feet were super sore, so we spent a lot of time on a bench next to this one. 🙂
Take a close look at this and see if you can figure out what it was used for. The answer my surprise you!
Did you cheat and look at the title? I would’ve. If you did, you learned that this is a musical instrument–a slit gong. These slit gongs from Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, are “among the largest freestanding musical instruments on earth” (Source: Met Museum).
They are made from hollowed out breadfruit trees. To play the music, you hit the edges of the slit with a club (click for picture) to produce deep, resonating tones.
Check out the resources section for some links and videos to hear the sounds and see some dancing and such. The music was played for ceremonies, initiations, funerals, etc.
The gongs are carved to represent an important ancestor. You can see the stylized eyes, nose, and hands, but where is the mouth? The long slit in the front of the instrument is the ancestor’s mouth from which the music, or the ancestor’s voice, emanates.
Interestingly, the gongs were also used to communicate across villages. The sound can carry for miles, and they developed a very specific gong language for these messages.
Art Discussion Questions
- What do you notice? Take a close look and describe what you see.
- How does the size of this object impact the artwork? “How might the impact of this work change if you could fit it in your pocket? Why do you think the artist made it so large?”*
- What can you tell about the people of Vanuatu based on this artwork?
- “The gong represents an ancestor. When the instrument is struck, his or her voice comes out of the long, narrow mouth. What might this object tell us about the community’s feelings or ideas about their ancestors?”*
* These questions were adapted from the Lesson Plan, Voices of the Past, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Vanuatu Slit Gong Art Project
This artwork was created to represent an important ancestor. Have student think about their own ancestors and how ancestors play a role in their family life and community. Have students create an artwork honoring their own ancestor(s).
Vanuatu Slit Gong Resources and Citations
- Read the Met Museum’s Object Information.
- Here is a great video with more information about this artwork. Unfortunately, it won’t let me embed the video, so you can find it on Vimeo at this link. You can even see the bench we sat on for a long time in this video. Thrilling. I know.
- There is also an audio tour entry from the Bowers Museum with more information about slit gongs. It includes audio of the slit drums being played.
- Here’s another video of a dance from Vanuatu with a slit gong being played. It has some nude-ish men in traditional dress, so you may want to pre-screen this before you show your kids and make that decision for yourself.
- A great lesson plan from the Met Museum about these slit gongs. Voices of the Past.
That’s it! Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the artwork in the comments. Click here to find more art from around the world, and come back tomorrow for a trip to the United States of America!
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