An Encounter with the Pentecost landdivers


The Idea

(Bunlap 2004)

Ai salsal - somebody who comes and goes - and might as well never return. That is what the Sa from Bunlap call us, white Europeans. We, the anthropologists Thorolf Lipp and Martina Kleinert wanted to set out for another way. Since 1997 we have been returning, again and again, and now - after five years of preparation - we will invite five of our best friends for a trip to Germany. They will be our guests for several weeks, to get an idea of and share our way of life. They will be here to work with us at three "places of encounter" - Munich, Obergünzburg and Bayreuth - cooperating in the design of exhibitions and mediating aspects of their culture. At the same time they have the chance to experience and explore our country and our way of life.



Ai salsal – minim wan man i kam mo i lus bakegen, maet hem i neva save kambak tu. Olgeta long Bunlap i talem olsem long ol waet man. Mifala anthropologist Thorolf Lipp mo Martina Kleinert i wantem jensim samting ia. Statem long 1997 mifala i bin kam bak plante taem mo nao, mifala bin prepea faef yia ia finis, mifala i invaetem faef gudfala frend blong mifala long Bunlap i kam long Germany. Bae oli stap samfala wik mo lukluk laef blong mifala. Olgeta i kam blong soem aot kalja blong olgeta long trifala ples - München, Obergünzburg long Allgäu mo Bayreuth. Long sem taem oli gat janis blong lukluk ples blong mifala mo faenem aot olgeta samting long fasin blong laef blong mifala.


The Story Behind

(Chief Warisul, Watas, Kaka, Bebe, Telkon, Thorolf, Moses, Bunlap 1997)

1997 was the year I, Thorolf Lipp, visited Bunlap for the first time. As filmmaker and anthropologist I was on a research trip commissioned by the University of the South Pacific. I wanted to see and film how the men of Bunlap cultivate and prepare kava, to learn about the role of "The Drink of the Gods" - which later became the title of my documentary - in Vanuatu. During this first stay I already got to know some of the men who were to become my best partners and friends: Bebe Malegel, Moses Watas, Chief Warisul Telkon and Telkon Betu. All of them are in the picture above. This first encounter with the Kastom Sa impressed me deeply. During the months following this first trip a desire emerged to learn more about them, to do an anthropological research and share their way of life. When I had to return to Germany after my contract at the USP had run out in 1998, I was determined to find a way to return to the Sa of Bunlap and spend more time with them. I was delighted when a corresponding research proposal was accepted by the DFG in summer 2001 and the road was clear for fieldwork in Vanuatu, which all in all lasted about a year. After the first few weeks in 1997 there were two fieldwork periods of five months each in 2002 and 2004. Now I went there mainly as an anthropologist, but still as a filmmaker also, and no longer on my own. Together with my partner Martina Kleinert I produced the first part aof the TV-series "Mythen der Südsee" during that second stay. By then some men, who by and by became our friends, startet to ask us to show them our world. After I had published my PhD on the gol, the Pentecost landdiving in 2006, I devoted most of my time to make the idea of extending an invitation come true. It took three more years but in January and February 2009 I visited my friends from Bunlap again to announce that I would keep my promise and did last preparations such as shipping a traditional house to Germany where it will be erected anew in the Obergünzburg museum, getting passports and visa ready and things alike.


(Martina Kleinert and Watas, Bunlap 2002)

In 2002 Thorolf was returning to familiar places and faces - he had told me, Martina Kleinert, so much about Bunlap and I was looking forward, curiously and a little bit unsure what it really would be like. In the beginning it was just a foreign, unknown world. But, naturally, during the weeks of filming and research this changed. According to Sa customs, while Thorolf spend the evenings with the men drinking kava in the nakamals, I stayed with their wives and children. As much as short time and lack of a common language allows- hardly any woman of Bunlap speaks Bislama - close and effective relationsships to some of the women and girls evolved. To the people of Bunlap it seemed naturally that I would return together with Thorolf when he eventually came back for his rearch. Having been in Bunlap together somehow was asking to continue the visits together. So, in 2004, I also returned to Bunlap, to pick up Thorolf and spend a few more weeks with the people of Bunlap (and to continue the research I had started in 2002 on Sa stringfigures). Motivated by our stories and films, my friend Katrin Martin joined me, and shared our fieldwork in Bunlap as a photographer.


The PRoject

(Mali, Chief Molsmok, Thorolf Lipp - Bunlap 2004)

I didn’t want to be someone who carries out ethnographic research and then writes a highly academic book that would eventually be for my own benefit, but of little use for my partners and friends in Vanuatu. Still, for many reasons, at the beginning inviting my most important partners to Germany seemed infeasible. Later, however, I started thinking seriously how such a journey, such a cultural encounter, could look like. Soon the idea of organizing an exhibition took shape. Already during the first stay with Martina in 2002 we were thinking about the presentation of the impressive Juban masks carved by men of South Pentecost. By the time of our next stay in Bunlap in 2004 it had already become clear, however, that no museum would finance the visit of several men for an exhibition of two dozen masks only. I, on the other hand, being a part-time, short-term assistant lecturer and freelance filmmaker didn’t have the means to finance such a project privately. (This aims at all those critics who somehow naively suspected us to do this project – and promote it publicly - to foster our own careers. Getting ahead in academia follows different rules!)

Between 2002 and today the idea took the shape of what is presented here: At three venues – Munich, Obergünzburg and Bayreuth – we try to give the broader public an understanding of the particular cultural achievements of the Sa and – in return – let them have a look at our way of life. Only the entire project allowed for their journey.

For all of us this truly is a journey “into the unknown”. Nobody can predict what will happen during the two months of their stay in Germany. As J.W. von Goethe put it: "A journey is like a game. There is always some gain and some loss, most often from the unexpected side."



Looking two Ways

Ai salsal. We do not only come and go. We take pictures, bring the home. As filmmakers and photographers. And we return our films, whenever we come back to Bunlap. To show them on request over and over again. In Bunlap a lot of things appear unknown, unfamiliar, strange, interesting - and we take pictures of it.


"Our View"

on the people of Bunlap provides a choice of pictures that were taken over the last 15 years, from different angles. The photographers are Katrin Friedrich, Martina Kleinert and Thorolf Lipp. Today, a majority of anthropologists is fascinated by cultural cracks and discontinuities. To a critical observer our view may therefore appear as looking for the exotic and aesthetic. One could maybe suspect a “desire for the origin”, a longing for an ideal, different world. At the beginning of my research in Bunlap I was reminded again and again of Stanley Diamond and his project of a “critical anthropology”, which aimed at rendering consciousness and envisioning primitive society as a cultural paradigm preceding the state and its associated form of civilisation.

At the beginning of my stay with the Sa I sensed, I hoped, that I had encountered a potential of human possibilities, that – I thought at that time – had been lost to us western-capitalistic modernists. Today I would say that the major, personal success of this research consists – last but not least – of the adjustment of these first, yet unreflected impressions. Both in a positive and negative sense.


(Bunlap, January 2009)

Today I would take many pictures in a different way. But to stop showing them and thus dismiss, as some sort of self-censorship, my view from the past as immature would also appear quite dishonest. Maybe the pictures show even better than words how over the years at least my perspective has changed. Bunlap is no paradise!

Bunlap has many varied facets – at first sight there is lot of idyll that can be captured in picturesque photos. Very often it is a thin line between cliché and „but it is just like that“. Many of my pictures are showing laughing, happy faces: do I unintentionally enforce the common view of the „happy primitive“ - or are they a proof of an open, intimate relationship between the photographer and those being photographed? The pictures’ meaning does alter over the years, they are looked at with different eyes. In some of Bunlap’s faces there are firstly unrecognized, exiting traces to be found. Eventually, the judgement of the pictures is due to the beholder.


"Their View"

For our guests there will be very much to see in Germany - and we wish to record "Their View" of us. We will give them the possibilty to take pictures to take home with them. And to let them explain to us things that astonish, amuse, frighten or fascinate.

Here you see the pictures and comments of Betu Watas and Tolak Moltavil.



It won't come as a surprise that we will record not only still images of our friend's stay - and that we will give the camera into their hands as well. "Filmproject" will contain filmic minatures. Partly created by us, partly by them, partly together. Reverse Anthropology - multivocal ethnography - there are several names for it. Plenty stories to be told from different perspectives.