Victoria Ginn

The Spirited Earth:
Dance, Myth and Ritual from South Asia to the South Pacific

I began this photographic study in 1984, following the seasons and my intuition through Bali, Java, Sumatra, Sarawak, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, and India. After returning to New Zealand, my birthplace, for a brief rest, I continued on to remote regions of Australia and the Solomon and Vanuatu islands in the Pacific. In part it was due to an interest in human culture that I undertook the journey comprising the ‘Spirited Earth’, but in the main it was born from a desire to explore the complex visual symbols, philosophies, universal archetypes, emotions and aesthetics contained within traditional performance, and in particular, the bonds between peoples and their environment.

The theatrical version of the Balinese deity Tjintiya - the Divine Androgyne, greeted me at the beginning of my journey; an ancient symbol of the union of opposites and original unity of life ushering me into the mystic and mythical realm. Several years after this encounter, while I was in the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, photographing against the setting sun a masked personification of an entity believed to appear to the recently deceased, my camera jammed irreparably - ending the journey with a vision as powerful as at its start.

In the course of my travels I was privileged to be shown and entrusted with documenting both sacred and secular performance: the dances of creation stories, exploits of mythical cultural heroes, visions of deities, rituals of the hunt, ceremonies of initiation, funerary rites - the ‘performers’ actually manifesting or becoming in the process of expression the divine-consciousness, sorrowful king, flying monkey hero, ghost, monster, initiated adult, ancestral spirit and so on. The images come from various cultural and religious performance traditions, but all communicate via the language of signs-gesture, colour, costume, expression -to convey a meaning that has been handed down for generations, and to lead the spectator and performer into a consciousness of life beyond the perimeters of the everyday. They are performances to entertain; instil moral and spiritual values in the young; preserve traditional identity; give form to the subtle truths and insights of the heart; pass on local myths; encourage fertility and harvest; establish models of perfection; commune with deities; initiate the young into knowledge of the mysteries; maintain an equilibrium between the forces of light and shadow; assist spirits of the dead to return to their places of re-birth-and through all this to seek to maintain the unique and delicate beauty comprising human culture.

I did not undertake any research prior to my journey and for the ‘anthropological’ meaning behind the various performances I consulted the works of numerous scholars post- journeying; I relied primarily, however, on the people themselves to educate me. They told me the myths and fables of their clans and explained how many of the dances and rituals were left as gifts to them by their ancestors, or taught to them in dreams. Often these ageold performances have acquired varying interpretations as they passed through the generations - sometimes the dance alone is all that remains, its meaning lost entirely or carefully guarded by initiates and adepts.

Some of the performers are from the last generation to practise the traditional dances and rituals in the true sense of expression and since my journey in the 1980’s many of this generation have passed away and/or the original spiritual function of the performance has been subsumed into spectacle. Modernization, with its capitalist mentality has discouraged indigenous traditions as ‘backward’ and in eroding cultural individuality and self-esteem has created a potentially lethal sense of displacement amongst the younger generations of once autonomous tribal societies; democracy has put an end to royal patronage of dancers; and the unrelenting invasiveness of missionaries, who have moved to outlaw tribal ‘heathenisms’, have all weakened traditional bonds. However, some national governments have had the foresight to protect the privacy of the more fragile cultural traditions.

Though documentary in their significance the images represent a ‘creative collaboration’ between myself and the participants and were given to me out of pride in culture and the belief that I would help to ensure the protection and place of traditional dance and culture amongst the wisdoms of the world.

   Victoria Ginn

This portfolio represents just a small representation of the 47 photographs in the exhibition. The book The Spirited Earth: Dance, Myth, and Ritual from South Asia to the South Pacific (Rizzoli, New York, 1990) ISBN 0-8478-1167-0 contains most of the series of 200 images.

A New Zealand Centre for Photography touring exhibition.

More images can be seen on


[Above] Mako-mako Ai-matauwa (to cover one’s self with mud) Ai-fono-fono (the coming of a people from afar) is an ancient drama involving a gentle, light-skinned, tree-dwelling and tree-worshipping people who came to a violent end when they were invaded and massacred by a dark-skinned, sea-faring people. Another story behind this re-enactment tells of a warrior party of cannibals who came to hunt human flesh. Aware of their danger, the hunted people covered themselves in mud to appear as if spirits. Upon seeing this transformation, the killers were stopped in their tracks, until one of the younger ‘spirits’ tripped while disappearing into the jungle, giving away the disguise.

    Natagera, Santa Ana, Solomon Islands