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in Papua New Guinea SUSAN COCHRANE

Cochrane, Susan © 2013 Living Art in Papua New Guinea 2013 ISBN: 978-1-922007-51-3 The Copyright for text in this publication is held by the author and may not be reproduced without the author’s permission. No images may be reproduced without permission. Every effort has been made to obtain copyright clearances and contact owners of works. Further information is welcomed by the author. This publication is copyright in all countries subscribing to the Berne Convention. Apart form any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without permission. 1. Cochrane, Susan. 2. Papua New Guinea. 3. Contemporary art. 4. Papua New Guinea art. 5. Artists Papua New Guinea. 6. Performance art. 7. Indigenous art. 8. Pacific art. 9. Pacific artists. 10. Body decoration. 11. Art history Papua New Guinea. 12. Painting. 13. Sculpture. 14 Haus tambaran. 15. Asia Pacific Triennial. 16. World art. 17. Oceanic art. 18. Contemporary culture Papua New Guinea. 19. Kastom. 20. Festival. 21.Village art. 22. Urban art. 23.Global art. 24. Living art. 25. Port Moresby. Publication designed by Effie Shiue, Artfilms Distributed by Contemporary Arts Media

Cover art 0.1 Mekeo dancers performing a welcome singsing at the University of Papua New Guinea for an international conference group. Photo Susan Cochrane. Daniel Waswas ‘Bilas’, diptych, acrylics on canvas 2008. University of Goroka Collection. Photo Susan Cochrane. Facing page 0.2 Jakupa Ako, untitled (Creature series print) c.1980. Private Collection.


Dedication to all the artists of Papua New Guinea past and present who shared their art and stories with me to show the world ii

Acknowledgements This art book for the digital age is the culmination of thirty years research, writing and curating activities in Papua New Guinea. My interest in Papua New Guinea grew from my childhood and the influence of my parents, Percy and Renata Cochrane, who admired Papua New Guineans and their great diversity of cultures. I have drawn on their archives, the Percy and Renata Cochrane Collection at the University of Wollongong, for some of the images in this book. In my early days as an art historian and curator, Hugh Stevenson was my mentor. As we collaborated on curating the touring exhibition, Luk Luk Gen! (Look Again!) : Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea, the first international traveling exhibition of contemporary art (1990-93), and later projects, Hugh ensured that I developed a commitment for presenting and promoting contemporary art and artists. He endowed the University of

From left to right 0.3 Jakupa Ako, untitled (Creature series print) c.1980. Private Collection. 0.4 John Man, untitled drawing c 1975. Private Collection. 0.5 John Man, untitled drawing c 1975. Private Collection. 0.6 John Man, untitled drawing c 1975. Private Collection.


Papua New Guinea Library with his legacy, the Hugh Stevenson Collection of artworks, photographs and documents recording the emergence of the contemporary art movement and it’s pioneering artists. Some images in this book are from research and documentation undertaken with Hugh in the 1980s-90s. For many years my Papua New Guinean friends and colleagues have encouraged, supported and collaborated with me on exhibition and writing projects. In particular, I wish to thank Prof. Michael Mel of the University of Goroka for sharing his insights and for his intellectual input. Daniel Waswas, both as a leading artist and Director of the Melanesian Institute for Arts and Culture, has always been generous with contacts, inspiration and cover art for my books. Soroi Eoe, previously Director of the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery, librarian and archivist Deveni Temu, freelance


curator Joycelin Leahy and Pacific Islands Trade Commissioner Creative Arts Manager, Ruth Choulai, are all deserving of special mention for their dedication to the presentation and promotion of Papua New Guinean artists. Thanks to Amanda Adams of Art Stret Gallery in Port Moresby for assistance with contacting artists.

the former Cultural Director, Emmanuel Kasarherou and curatorial staff Sandra Maillot Win-Nemou and Petelo Tuilalo, and I appreciate their continuing support. The commission from the Campbelltown Art Center for the Sepik River project in 2010, with Jeffry Feeger as Assistant Curator, enabled an experimental project bringing together contemporary village and urban artists. The Queensland Art Gallery-Gallery of Modern Art has also generously approved the use of images and hyperlinks to successive Asia-Pacific Triennials; in particular I wish to thank Maud Page, Ruth MacDougall and Judy Gunning at QAGOMA.

Several colleagues, who have themselves devoted years to developing projects with Papua New Guinea artists and supported them with publications and exhibitions, deserve special mention for sharing their time and resources with me. Pamela Rosi has been especially generous, and I acknowledge Jackie Lewis-Harris, Nicolas Garnier, Christina Hellmich and Eva Raabe for their support of this project. This publication has morphed from its original concept as an illustrated art book into a more complex electronic book. It would not have been possible without funding for research and several commissions that broadened the scope of the research with periods of fieldwork in several provinces in 2008, 2009 and 2010. I acknowledge the Australia Council Visual Arts Board for the award of an Established Writer Grant in 2009. The National Museum of Australia for supporting workshops and research with Mel, Waswas, Temu and Leahy throughout 2008-09. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre of New Caledonia, with which I have been associated since 1995 has on several occasions commissioned me to research, collect and document Papua New Guinean art and artists, working  together with


0.7 Jakupa Ako, untitled early drawing c.1978. Private Collection.

I have donated my archives to the Fryer Library of the University of Queensland (UQFL419). This extensive collection of documents, images, publications and ephemera, covers contemporary art movements in Papua New Guinea from their beginnings in the late 1960s to the present. I thank the Fryer Librarians for their assistance and hope the material accumulated over 30 years will be useful to other scholars and students. I have also used images from my parents’ extensive archive, the Cochrane Papua New Guinea Collection at the University of Wollongong. Above all I wish to thank every artist who has given their time to informal discussions and interviews, as well as approval to photograph themselves and their art in the interests of presentation and promotion of their work; together we bring knowledge of Papua New Guinean art to the world nd I hope this publication serves you well. Over the flow of years there have been many unforgettable meetings in PNG and in the wider world, celebrating exhibitions and other art events. Thank you, Mathias Kauage, Jakupa Ako and Wendi Choulai, now departed but always remembered. Thanks to my daughter Renata Bliss for editing my amateur video clips, Deborah Jordan for the first copy edit, Janet Dixon Keller for a comprehensive editorial review, Michael Simons for his digital media overview and Effie Shiue for the design of this publication.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.


Books by the same author Author Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea (1997) Bérétara: Contemporary Pacific Art (2001) Art and Life in Melanesia (2007) A Black and White Family Album: Mother and Daughter Memoirs of Papua New Guinea (2007) Editor and Contributor Aboriginal Art Collections: Highlights from Australia’s Public Museums and Galleries (2001) with Hugh Stevenson, Luk Luk Gen! (Look Again!) : Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea (1990) with Jiunshyan Lee, Across Oceans and Time: Art in the Contemporary Pacific (2007) with Max Quanchi, Hunting the Collectors: Pacific Collections in Australian Art Galleries, Museums and Archives (2011)


0.8 John Man, untitled drawing c 1975. Private Collection.

Image Credits Many of the images appearing in this publication have been taken by the author on various occasions while engaged in fieldwork for diverse projects. I thanks all the artists for their consent to be photographed and their artworks to be reproduced. The images may be far from perfect but I am strictly an amateur photographer with very limited equipment. Several colleagues and galleries have generously supplied images, in particular I wish to thank the following for their photographs reproduced here: Art Stret Gallery of Port Moresby, Michel Bonnefis, Robert MacLennan, Michael Mel, Pamela Rosi, Hugh Stevenson. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia has consistently collected works by Papua New Guinea artists since 1995. Thank you for permission to reproduce photographs of artworks in the FACKO Collection, with the consent of the artists.

YouTube Gallery Living Art in Papua New Guinea is an art book for the digital age. Each interactive element has been carefully researched to extend the beyond the format of a conventional art book. The visual spectrum and ‘live’ experience is greatly increased through YouTube video clips or other forms of digital stories, which highlight the multiple contemporary realities of art and life in Papua New Guinea. Hyperlinks to exhibition websites, online catalogues and essays extend the interpretation of images. The links appear throughout the chapters to enrich the text and still images. A full list of YouTube video clips and hyperlinks is also in the Reference section.

The Queensland Art Gallery - Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, has kindly given permission to reproduce photographs and You Tubes of Papua New Guinea artists and their artworks taken at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art since APT2 in 1996.

vi 9

Table of Contents Section 1 1

The Arts of Papua New Guinea

Section 2 10

Kastom and Contemporary Culture 12 Kastom 23 Collaborative Creativity 32 In Her Hands 48 Natural Resources 59 Bilas 70 Singsing 84 The Spiritual in Art: haus tambaran, haus lotu

Section 3 100 Village • Urban • Global 102 Setting the Scene 107 Village to Urban 117 Urban Clans 138 The Changing Urban Art Environment 155 Art and Social Issues 170 Cityscape 184 Village to Global: Sepik Journey 203 Going Global

vii 10

222 228 229 233

Endnotes Glossary References About the Author

Collective Creativity

Collective Creativity Each indigenous artistic system operates within its own contemporary framework, very much part of its place and time. Collective creativity is part of indigenous artistic systems, it is about common purpose and joint endeavour in the production of cultural objects that contribute to community life. There is no distinction between ‘visual’ and ‘performing’ arts in complex events where everyone is a participant and body decoration is a supreme form of creative expression. In the early 2000s around 75% of Papua New Guinea villagers, linked by clan and kin groups, were living in rural or remote areas. The village is the centre of their world – an individual is part of the greater community. Collective creativity supports villagers’ mutual endeavours and social integration. Collaboration and pride in the status and achievements of one’s clan are predominant in villages throughout Papua New Guinea, but less so in urban environments where the Western-influenced urban culture privileges an artist’s individual achievement. Meg Taylor, one time Papua New Guinean Ambassador to the United Nations, expressed the importance of knowing one’s identity through family and clan and understanding one’s sense of place; these are powerful threads linking people through caring, protecting, loyalty and fulfilling obligations. The honouring of these relationships, even if onerous, allows harmony to prevail. The continuity of family and clan customs honours the past, provides a sense of values. Taylor commented on the deep feeling of belonging that is rooted in the land, the intimacy between people and place, describing it as: [t]he land where earth and spirit combine. Land here is more than dirt or earth to be used for cultivation and harvest. It is not a marketable commodity, but instead an umbilical cord that unites us with nature, linking the present with the past

3.2 a,b,c Sulka Mengen tubuan group performing at Kokopo National Mask Festival, 2009. The masks are woven over a cane frame. The distinctive pink of Sulka masks is a natural plant dye. Photos courtesy Bob Snow.

and the future. . . Land is the joining of matter and spirit . . . the life of which my life is just a part.17 For significant occasions within village communities, making art is a social activity and its end products are appreciated with a sense of collective pride and achievement. Members of a community – or specific groups within a community such as men’s secret societies– employ a shared vocabulary of forms, patterns and symbols. Whether permanent or ephemeral, the art forms they produce to mark special occasions contribute to a sense of wellbeing and belonging among the members of a society. Distinctive and culturally significant art forms are part of Papua New Guinean clan’s kastom bilong ples. For example, New Britain, one of the major islands of the Bismark Archipelago, is divided into the provinces of East New Britain and West New Britain. Each of its distinctive cultural/linguistic


Kastom and Contemporary Culture

3.3 Novices dressed as dukduk, who have just been inducted into their Tolai clan’s tubuan groups, present bananas and other foodstuffs to elders and leaders of the Kanavo-Tutupar ceremony. Photo Susan Cochrane. Right page 3.4 Tolai tubuan group arriving by canoe for the Kinivai ceremony to launch the 2009 Warwargira and Kokopo National Mask Festival. Photo Susan Cochrane.

groups has its characteristic sets of masks and other objects made for funerary rites and initiation. These elaborate and expressive art forms are exemplify for succeeding generations the empowering of knowledge through art, the rich imagination of creative endeavor and artistic virtuosity. Sometimes communities share artistic traditions as well. The outward form and appearance of sets of


the Tolai, Sulka and Nakanai tubuan masks have many commonalities. All the variations among these masks conceal the wearer’s head entirely under their conical structure; they are made from natural materials and attached to skirts of long leaf fronds. Tubuan groups do not regard these sets of masks as heritage objects to be kept, nor do they expect to sell the masks to collectors (but some groups may negotiate if there is a collector interested).18 These are ephemeral objects, usually destroyed or discarded after serving their purpose in performance. Certain places in a village or on clan lands, like the men’s house or selected places in the bush where men make ritual objects in seclusion, are designated as sites where creation takes place. The inter-generational creation of sets of special objects is at once an instructive experience, an affirmation of values and beliefs, the maintenance of forms of cultural expression and an opportunity for social interaction. For example, men of a Tolai tubuan group who are involved in staging a kinivai or other complex ceremony, spend many hours in their place of seclusion making tubuan and dukduk masks. Novices are instructed and mentored by their seniors in the age-grade rank tubuan system. This collective participation in the culture is part of the social fabric and upholds traditional beliefs and values. The disciplined system of creating art is also a process for the transmission of principles, laws and rituals considered sacred and inviolable. Being a high-ranking tubuan leader adds prestige

Collective Creativity


Kastom and Contemporary Culture

Bilas We both are artists, separated yet So close, facing each other. His eyes were opened, but still he couldn’t see His ears were opened, but still he couldn’t hear His mouth was opened, but still no words came through. The necklace he wore The feathers on his head The grass-skirt on his waist And the colour-shadings on his Body Were his Language. Mary Brigitte Toliman39 People of all cultures express beliefs about themselves in their appearance. The human body has been used in all societies to communicate aesthetic sensibilities and express identities. Often a persons’s social status and role is defined by the way they dress. People decorate their bodies with precious objects and elaborate costumes, makeup, fragrant oils and perfumes to attain an ideal state. One of the most important aesthetic concepts in Papua New Guinea is that of bilas, which is most often translated as ‘self adornment’ or ‘body decoration’. The Tok Pisin word bilas originates from the English word 6.0 Dancer of the Madara Cultural Mask Group, Central New Ireland, performing at the 2009 Kokopo National Dance Festival. Photo Susan Cochrane.


‘flash’, as in looking cool. But bilas is a many-layered concept, an artistic practice and cultural phenomenon; much of its meaning is lost in translation. There are great complexities in the art of bilas, and many nuances in this complex term. As Papua New Guinea has around 700 language groups, each with its distinctive cultural markers, there are hundreds of styles of bilas. Papua New Guinea author and performance artist Michael Mel writes that: Bilas is an activity engaged in by people, we cannot study and discuss a particular people’s bilas as an object. Bilas is not a ‘thing’, it is not an object. Objects do not possess meaning, the meaning is given by people . . . Bilas is defined and practised in accordance with the underlying culture of each group. There were specific colours, designs and patterns, and understood rules and regulations to the actual practice of putting on bilas. These understood rules and regulations regarding bilas gave people an important sense of being both productive and meaningful members of their groups.40 The elements of costume that complete the self adornment are treasured and prestigious. Protracted negotiations with kin and affines and reciprocal obligations may be necessary to obtain a full set of bilas, for example for a bride price ceremony. Plumes are carefully stored in bamboo tubes; shell rings, kina (pearlshell) breastplates, ropes of nassa shell, kapkap and dog’s teeth necklaces and other treasures outlast generations. Elaborate 6.1 Daniel Waswas ‘PNG Faces’, acrylics on canvas, 2008. Tjibaou Cultural Centre Collection. Photo E. Righetti.


masks and wigs, magnificent head-dresses and dance accessories are made or assembled with virtuosity by men who are skilled and who have been initiated into these arts. Body painting is a widespread form of bilas throughout Papua New Guinea. Painting is a decorative art that is temporary rather than permanent marking like tattooing or scarification. There is an infinite variety in the combination of colours and designs, but each genre is specific to a particular culture. The face is the focal point, whether painted in bold designs as typical of the Western Highlands Melpa and Southern Highlands Huli, or painted discreetly as a row of black and white dots such as is favoured by Trobriand Islanders. Colours and patterns are significant and must be executed with utmost skill. The body is rarely covered with ochres, more often fragrant oils are used to enhance the shine of the skin. During the period of mourning for a deceased person, the mourner’s bodies are daubed with white clay giving the skin a dry, hard look. The materials traditionally used for body paint are common throughout Papua New Guinea; natural ochres, white clay, charcoal mixed with oil and pigments made from plants such as tumeric. Hale Lahui describes the materials used for the striking Huli (Southern Highlands) face and body paint: The background colour for Huli facial makeup is usually made from yellow clay called ambua. This background application is decorated with accents of red clay, hare, and white clay, momo. Vermillion, goloba, and black charcoal, ira punga, are also used to add decorative features and patterns to the overall design of the facial makeup. However, white is sometimes used as the backdrop for the designs, and clear tree oil, mbagwa, is also occasionally used when a colour pigment isn’t desired.41


village • urban • global


Village to Urban

Village to Urban In Bernard Narokobi’s view, pioneering contemporary artists had a role as social commentators who expressed the life and concerns of their generation of Papua New Guineans. Reflecting on the emergence of the contemporary art movement in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, he wrote that: The works of Jakupa, Kauage and others…reflect the deep socio-psychological transformation that is taking place in Papua New Guinea. Changes are taking place in all aspects of life, including religion, politics and the style of life.67 Michael Mel observed that, although urban culture became rooted in Papua New Guinea, those who were among the first generation to leave their homelands still had a strong attachments to their village background: We have left our homelands, our hamlets and our villages in search of work, education… in some cases as itinerant visitors and workers. But in the leaving we have brought with us the assorted luggage of our languages, customs, stories and myths — in part real and in part imagined — and memories of childhood. While we negotiate and forage in the modern cosmopolitan locations, we find time to claim and cling to some authenticity.68

Facing page 9.6 Ruki Fame, 1985 National Art School exhibiton catalogue cover.

The village-urban dichotomy was a shared experience of the pioneering contemporary artists Timothy Akis, Jakupa Ako, Mathias Kauage, John Man, Cecil King Wungi, Ruki Fame and others. These artists also had little formal education, thus low levels of literacy and numeracy, and only spoke their maternal language, plus Tok Pisin and a little English. Yet they managed a new type of artistic career, with some assistance from intermediaries, but largely from their own initiative. In the late 1960s and 1970s, pioneering Papua New Guinean contemporary artists, were introduced to drawing and painting with Western media paper and canvas, texta pens, crayons and acrylic paints. Many of these artists’ early drawings are experimental ting ting bilong mi (something/idea of mine), like Akis’ mythical creatures, Wungi’s monochrome drawings and Man’s whimsical animals. Hugh Stevenson noted that a common element of success in the group of pioneering artists who made the village to urban shift was that they were all adults with status in their village society, as well as some experience of employment, before they ventured into artistic careers in Port Moresby. He remarked that: In the social context, Kauage, John Man, Watu Lopo, Cecil King Wungi, Barnabas India and William Onglo were all working as labourers in the vicinity of Port Moresby. This social station did not have the connotations that it might have in Australia. For the itinerant unemployed population of villagers who came from all over Papua New Guinea who were in Port Moresby at that time, to have work at all was usually an indicator of extra initiative. The men who became artists found unusual and imaginative ways to assert themselves. It was perhaps circumstantial that their efforts coincided with the artistic interests and cultural attitudes of some expatriates in Port Moresby.69 Ulli and Georgina Beier arrived in Port Moresby in 1967. Ulli Beier took up a lecturing position at the new University of Papua New Guinea, where his


Village • Urban • Global

Art and Social Issues Port Moresby is home to an increasing number of city born artists, and others migrating in from different provinces, who manage to make their living from their art. Some have had illustrious careers and are recognised nationally and internationally. Artists are an integral part of urban society and the creative life of the city; their art is highly visible in the cityscape, ranging from public artworks by prominent artists to displays of paintings at street markets, to walls of taggings and grafitti. Just as there are multiple genres of art produced in urban centres, there are multiple market places for it. For a majority of second and third generation urbanised Papua New Guineans, attachment to their parent’s and grandparent’s villages and kastom has greatly diminished; English and Tok Pisin have replaced their tok ples, marriage and relationships are no longer governed by tribal rules and kinship; consumer culture has defied traditional exchange and reciprocity; and beliefs in ancestors and spirits have shifted to Christianity or died out. For the first generation of Papua New Guineans moving from village to town, their initial experiences of urban life were something of a culture shock. The quiet, more ordered village way of life is radically challenged in a looser, lawless city like Port Moresby and by new ‘friends’, drink, gambling, fights. It is often difficult to find work, even in lowly occupations, hassles with the police and authorities are more frequent and greed and materialism defy even deeply ingrained values. A younger generation of urban dwellers, born since Papua New Guinea’s Independence in 1975, have grown up in Port Moresby with significantly different life experience and outlook when compared with their parents and grandparents. Some have no recollection of


village life, and no interest in it. Urban youth readily take up rap, tagging, hip hop and other elements of contemporary black street culture and make these part of their own selfexpression. Uneducated in the ways of their grandparents, the urban environment and local popular culture is their reality. The exponential growth in intermarriage between partners from different tribal backgrounds means that both partners and their children communicate in the lingua franca, Tok Pisin, and perhaps English, rather than either of the partner’s mother tongues, which no-one else in the family can understand. The country’s established artists, who are recognised as visionaries and intellectuals of Papua New Guinea society, range across all levels of society, but most live in modest circumstances. Stories about the artists and exhibitions are regularly covered in the local media; artists with successful careers are local identities. They may become role models, unafraid to speak out and portray social issues in their art. In the pages to follow I highlight examples of the political design of many Papua New Guinean works of art, especially in support of women’s issues.

12.2 Gigs Wena ‘Half-half Meri’ (Half-half woman), acrylic on canvas 1998. Photo Susan Cochrane, courtesy the artist. Subsequently acquired for the Tjibaou Cultural Centre Collection.


Village • Urban • Global


Art and Social Issues


village • urban • global

Previous pages 12.3 Wendi Choulai modelling one of her creations at the 1986 NAS Graduation. Photo courtesy Pamela Rosi. 12.4 Wendi Choulai, ‘Tru Kai Rice Skirt’ from the 2003 Kibung exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum. Photo Rod Bucholtz, courtesy University of Queensland Art Museum. 12.5a Wendi Choulai, ‘Egu Rami’, 1996. Artist’s drawing for Performance of the Roiroipe mourning dance of the Nehenni clan of Papua New Guinea, 26-9 September 1996 at the Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1996. Collection QAGOMA Research Library with permission. 12.5b Wendi Choulai, Egu Rami Performance 26-9 September 1996 at the Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Queensland Art gallery, Brisbane, 1996. Photograph Andrew Campbell. Collection QAGOMA Research Library with permission.

One of the first outspoken and influential women was the playwright, Nora Vagi Brasch. She was also one of the first women to achieve a higher level of education, graduating as a teacher in 1965, then undertaking a degree in journalism at the University. Her popular plays are humorous pieces on Papua New Guinea lifestyles, which also contain satirical and sometimes scathing insights. In 1986, Wendi Choulai was the first woman to graduate in textile design from the National Art School. She set up a fashion outlet, PNG Textiles, in Port Moresby with her sister, Ruth while still completing her studies at NAS; her designs and textiles were in great demand in Port Moresby. More than a successful artist and fashion designer, Wendi was an articulate spokesperson addressing the inhibitions facing women artists and the complexities of gender, culture and profession involved in forming a selfidentity. She stated that: I am a citizen of Papua New Guinea. I am a descendant of the Motu Koita people. I am a female. I am an artist/textile designer. I exhibit in an art gallery. These facts about myself


cannot be prioritized. They intertwine and bounce off each other. I am caught in a process of defining myself in relation to my Papuan culture. The real artistic expression of my culture is in ritual; in dance, in song and costume and body decoration.99 One of the first designs she submitted for a major project in her NAS course was based on the grass skirt, an expression of the dance she had participated in since childhood. She continued to develop this theme throughout her career. In the Mila Mala Market exhibition of 1987 she displayed early prototypes of her dance skirts, which draw on, but did not infringe, the artistic traditions of the Solien Besena clan of the Motu Koitapu people, always adhering to the ethics of art taught to her by her mother’s clan: I created a modern grass skirt without in any way insulting the traditional grass skirt of my family group. I believe that the artistic license I took in creating this grass skirt gave expression to the underlying desire among many Papua New Guineans to modernize, to give contemporary expression to traditional ritual.100 Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris, a lecturer at NAS who had come to PNG from the USA, became a close colleague and of Wendi’s and over the next decades wrote several articles on Wendi’s inventiveness and the philosophy behind her art, as well as collaborating with Wendi in documenting her projects: [T]he ‘Tru Kai Rice’ skirt, one of her most unique and creative works, was fabricated from shredded 50 kilo rice sacks. Woven in the traditional ‘grass skirt’ form, it ingeniously displayed the ‘Tru Kai’ logo among the multiple fibres forming the front of the skirt. The piece was a brilliant commentary upon her

Village to Global: Sepik Journey

Village to Global sepik journey Papua New Guinean artist’s creative interaction with their contemporary culture, values and identity intersects with village, urban and global art worlds. These last two chapters show how Papua New Guinean artists network and negotiate these linkages. Art is a powerful medium for indigenous people, who realise its power to enrich people’s lives. For some 200 years, museums in the Western world have exhibited treasured Papua New Guinea objects including monumental sculptures, fabulous masks, impressive canoes, intricate ornaments, painted barkcloth and elaborate costumes. Among Papua New Guinean artists the people who inhabit the extensive SepikRamu region are recognised for the aesthetic wealth generated within their several language/ culture groups. Since the 1880s, Sepik peoples have experienced scientific expeditions, extended anthropological studies within many communities, extensive documentation and collection of their tangible and intangible cultural heritage by Western scholars and connoisseurs of art.


village • urban • global



Village to Global: Sepik Journey

Sepik Region

14.2 Installation view, Sepik River Project, Campbelltwon Art Centre 2010. Photo Susan Cochrane.

Although they may not have traveled internationally themselves, Sepik artists are not ignorant of how the outside world receives and understands their art and culture; they are aware that exhibitions in art galleries and museums showcase Papua New Guinean art to outside audiences. The examples of several major commissions executed by senior Sepik artists from different communities demonstrates their interest in making singular objects or sets of objects for museum collections, as the following examples demonstrate. In 1970, Sir William Dargie commissioned senior artist /custodians Gunjel and Waim from Kalabu No 2 Village (Eastern Abelam) to make a 60 foot high façade of an Abelam korumbo in their language) for the Australian National Gallery.120 Gunjel and Waim made the façade, and other pieces specially commissioned for Australia’s national collection without leaving their village. The artworks were exported to Canberra (apparently a logistical nightmare) but were left in storage for over 30 years and not exhibited. A major restructure of Australian art

The Sepik is a ‘wild’ river: no cities with concrete banks and snarls of infrastructure have been built along its serpentine coils; no industry pollutes it; no bridge or dam has altered the pace of its flow or the movement of people along it. Descending from the Victor Emmanuel Range in the central highlands of New Guinea, the Sepik River briefly enters the Indonesian province of West Papua and winds through the Sundaun and East Sepik provinces of Papua New Guinea, reaching the sea about 100km east of Wewak. The river system with its tributaries, lakes and vast catchment area is one of the great river systems of the world. The river banks are home to some 80,000 people living in villages clustered in distinctive language-culture groups. Over millennia, past generations of Sepik peoples created the social and cultural knowledge that still shape the social organization, customs and lifestyle particular to each language group. Sepik art, in all its forms, expressions and ceremonies, binds people to their creation, ancestors, life cycles, their physical environment and all creatures that inhabit it and the supernatural world. People of the Iatmul language group occupy some 25 large villages and many hamlets along the river banks between Moim and Pagwi. Tambanam is the largest village, others include Ambunti, Timbunke, Angriman, Mindinbit, Kamanimbit, Kanganaman, Palimbei, Yentchan and Korogo.


Going Global

going global The cultural landscape of Papua New Guinea is constantly changing. Reflecting on the themes interwoven through the text and images, we have witnessed numerous ways in which kastom and contemporary culture continually inter-animate one another and, even when contested, help people adjust to the transformations occurring in their society. Kastom is the guardian of cultural memory, the expression of the people’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage; within their kastom bilong ples, artistic expression embodies spirits and ancestors, bonds social relationships and is interwoven with the natural world. There are many Papua New Guinea artists of renown who have made the journey village • urban • global, but whose ethos remains centred in their origins. In many of its diverse expressions Papua New Guineans’ contemporary culture respects the roots of kastom. Other forms of expression engage with global trends in politics, economic and social issues, for example, today’s worldwide youth culture – reggae beats, rap, hip hop, ‘tagging’, grafitti – are ingrained in Port Moresby’s urban youth culture, but imagined with local texture and context. The tensions between kastom and contemporary culture are sometimes rife and contstantly shifting. Kastom generally holds more authority in village settings, as seen in the previous chapters where in village communities the roles of men and women are different but complimentary. Where society demands new roles, such as elected members of Parliament and professional careers, Papua New Guinean women have struggled to gain an equal footing but are now achieving these high positions on their own merit. In the creative milieux, the greatest divergence from kastom bilong ples is seen in urban centres where new roles and different opportunities for artists have emerged along with the profession of individual contemporary artist. 15.2 Mathias Kauage at the opening of his exhibition at October Gallery, London. Cover of Art Monthly Australia, July 1999.


Village • Urban • Global

The chapters in Section 3, village • urban • global, have further revealed the multiplication and diversification of skills and productivity in all kinds of art forms as new opportunities for artists open up. In this last chapter we consider how Papua New Guinean artists are positioned to be recognised as a dynamic force in global creativity, especially from the perspective of Papua New Guinean artists’ participation in successive Asia Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art since this event was inaugurated at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1993. When Papua New Guinean artists and their art voyage into international contexts, how have they been received? In this last chapter, retracing a few of their journeys reveals something about the shifting politics of world art. There has been significant attitudinal change since the 1960s when there was little equality perceived between Euro-American aesthetics and art production and that of the rest of the world. Western cultural criteria dominated: conservative Western aesthetic theories assumed a conformity to what were held to be universal principles of what constituted ‘fine arts’; museums practised an elitist form of internationalism – that any art form could be interpreted according to Eurocentric terms of reference and incorporated into the patrimony of Western institutions. ‘Oceanic art’ in European and American museums and private collections is commonly considered to be ‘traditional’ art (previously designated ‘primitive’ art), and valued the more so when it is judged ‘authentic’, that is, untainted by outside influences: ‘traditional’ art was perceived as a category of highly regarded objects from Melanesian cultures that have features typical of their region of origin and demonstrate superior craftsmanship, formal and aesthetic qualities. Preferably old and rare, they suited the Eurocentric notion of ethnographic authenticity, with their desirability confirmed by Western scholarship, connoisseurs and the art market. Many renowned ‘authentic’ pieces were highly valued because of their connections with individuals and movements of modern European art.

15.3 Sharon Brissoni’s bilum haut couture paraded in Milan. Cover of Paradise magazine.


About the Author Susan Cochrane (b.1949) has achieved recognition as a writer and curator on Indigenous Pacific art in Australia and internationally over thirty years as an independent researcher, curator and writer. Growing up in Papua New Guinea gave her a special interest in her own generation of artists and their remarkable achievements. She has undertaken many collaborative projects with Indigenous artists, academics and museum professionals, resulting in landmark exhibitions and publications on art in the contemporary Pacific.


Preview Living Art in Papua New Guinea by Susan Cochrane