Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Storyboard Carvings of Palau

I decided to do some research into Oceanic art, and came across a contemporary art form called storyboards, from the island nation of Palau. Palau is located in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles east of the Philippines. The population is approximately 21,000, and 70% is made up of native Palauans.  In recent centuries, Palau was ruled by Spain, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. since World War II, but more became an independent republic in 1981.  Missionaries have been active in Palau since the early nineteenth century, when Jesuit missionaries reached the islands.  The listing of religious affiliation from Wikipedia is a bit confusing.  According to one report, 49.4% of the population are Roman Catholics, while in another report, the figure given is 65%.  The remaining population is made up of 21.3% Protestants (2000 individuals?), 8.7% Modekngei and 5.3% Seventh-day Adventists.  Modekngei is a hybrid religion that combines ancient Palauan beliefs with Christianity, and is mostly confined to one village.  This religion could be the topic of an entirely separate post.

The traditional religion of Palau was expressed visually in the local architecture, especially on the meeting houses, or bai:  

The end gables of these houses and the interior beams were made of wood and decorated with low-relief painted carvings, depicting each village's history and its relationships with other villages, as well as mythological stories.  Palauan society was and still is based on clan lineage, though in recent years it has become more based on education and economic status.  In former times, each village was founded by a group of clans.  The leaders of these clans would meet in the bai, which also served as a community center.  

The idea of of the portable storyboard art form was introduced in 1935 by Japanese art teacher Hisakatsu Hijikata in order to revive the traditional bai art form of painted wood carvings.  It was adopted by his students and others, and has become a favorite art form to sell to tourists (many of whom come to Palau to scuba dive).  Although made from various island trees, the preferred choice is ironwood.  

The completed boards are either painted in various hues (more traditional)...

 or are simply stained with a combination of black and brown shoe polish.

There appear to be two main sources for storyboards on Palau.  One is at the local prison, where they are made by prisoners for profit.  Alternatively, there is the Tabang Woodcarving Shop, run by master carver Ling Inabo.  He learned to carve as an apprentice to another Palauan master carver.  Inabo was apparently the one who introduced the practice of polishing the wood rather than painting it in varioius colors.

Most of the Inabo's storyboards depict Palauan legends and mythology.  He creates his designs by producing drawings first, which are then used as guides to make the carvings.  He trains multiple apprentices simultaneously to make most of the carvings for sale (Inabo himself now focuses on larger commission projects and individual orders from collectors).  Many of his apprentices go on to work independently and sell their own storyboards.

I have a few concluding points/thoughts:

(1)  The creation of storyboards is an example of a new art form based directly on a previous indigenous form (bai meeting house carvings), which utilizes the same essential element: relief wood carving.  Like examples from other parts of the world, it was developed for the purpose of generating income from the tourist industry.  And yet, it does not entirely abandon previous indigenous forms, but rather is a continuation of these forms.  This continuity enables the local population to take pride in the new art form because it is based on their artistic heritage, not on a foreign models (although ironically, the original bai carvings may have been influenced by outside sources).

(2)  This process also shows that the same thing can be done for the indigenous Christian community, i.e., believing artists can, at the direction of a group of local believers, either utilize traditional art forms and/or adapt others for use by the Christian community in church architecture, liturgical art or personal devotional objects.

(3)  Regarding church architecture, why hasn't the bai meeting house been adapted as a form of church architecture?  Once again, this was most likely due to the attitudes of the missionaries (both Catholic and Protestant).  Perhaps one reason for their aversion to the pai was due to one of their uses: as "school" for the initiation of boys in hunting, fishing, woodworking and... sex.  Girls were brought in from other villages and paid for their services.  The gables on a few of the bai were even painted with images of women spreading their legs to leave no doubt about what was going on inside (some of these are still around today).

However, this was only one of the uses for the building, and overall it sounds like the pai was the closest equivalent to a church building in Palauan society.  Unfortunately, the knowledge needed to construct these buildings is fading, but not completely gone.  I suppose it's possible that a future church could incorporate at least the idea of painted gables, since it is now widely used on the island on a variety of business buildings throughout Palau. 


  1. hallo i'm damiano ,an italian man . I looking for a palauian wooden board ,cause i have just black and white picture .i would like have coloured version . could you help me ???

  2. Citta- Click on the either of the board images above in the article, or check out the following links of both painted and plain storyboards. I hope this helps:


  3. thank you !!! but i have a picture in black and white similar ,but the picture inside is a little bit different then the picture of storyboard you suggest to me .if i sent you could you find it with colour(coloured )??thank you

  4. In 1994 I went to a barn sale in a tiny little Southern Oregon and picked up a 40 x 9" storyboard for $3. It is my favorite piece I've ever bought second hand (I used it as the color pallet for our home decor, actually). Today, I have a friend who has gotten deep into auctioning and she promted me to research my board. It seems it's the legend of Itabori. I have been reading about it and other Pulaun legends all morning, so fascinating! Unfortunatly, I cannot find anywhere online this particular piece of any like piece with this particular legend. I am prepping to auction it but wonder if you know of anyone who might be able to suggest what I should be asking? Knowing what we know now, my husband and I aren't entirely sure we want to sell it.

  5. I really don't know anything about the values of the storyboards or where to find such info. The best I can suggest it to google until you find someone in the auction business who specializes in oceanic art in particular or ethnographic art in general– maybe even a gallery owner? Below are four links that I used as sources for the post that might have some leads or names that you could further research. Good luck!