By Ruth McDougall, Curator, Pacific Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
Geographically, the mainland of Papua New Guinea lies just 3.7 kilometres from the island of Saibai in the Torres Strait, at the far-northern tip of Queensland. Historically, Australia and Papua New Guinea share colonial and modern histories. Yet PNG still holds a sense of mystery and mysticism in the Australian imagination: the drama and beauty of its landscapes and the rituals and customs of its people have inspired us for centuries. The recent Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art exhibition ‘No.1 Neighbour’ engaged with what it means to live in this vibrant nation today.
Presented in the Queensland Art Gallery from 14 October 2016 – 29 January 2017, ‘No 1 Neighbour’ highlighted the diversity of the different cultures found in this dynamic young nation bringing together works from 9 of its 22 provinces. The breadth of creative expression was evident, ranging from bilas (ornamentation) and the masking traditions involved in sing-sing (gatherings of the tribes to share cultural traditions) through to bold explorations in printmaking and painting technologies, as well as the dynamism of music and dance.
The first work visitors encountered in the exhibition — the spectacular Koromb (spirit house) 2012 ceiling by Kwoma artists from the East Sepik region — was commissioned by the Gallery for APT7 in 2012–13. It highlighted the importance of buildings such as these as places of local decision-making. The work also referenced the Kwoma-inspired ceiling in Parliament House in Port Moresby and the more formal shared history between our countries. Another key work was painter Simon Gende’s No.1 Kiap long Australia Jim Taylor / Brukim Bush Gone Long Highlands Papua Nuigini 1991 — known for his playful exploration of significant events and histories, Gende in this painting tells the story of Jim Taylor, a major figure in the colonial history of Papua New Guinea. As a kiap (patrol officer), Taylor led a series of expeditions into the Highlands during the 1930s, which saw this previously unexplored area opened up for pacification and change. Also included was a group of Tolai Tokatokoi (headdresses) 2011 with the traditional ancestor figure replaced with images of the Virgin Mary and a Sepik sculpture titled Adam and Eve 2011. Such works illustrated the enduring influence of the church and the cultural impact of Christianity. In some cases, audiences could see the inventive ways in which artists and communities responded to and integrated this new faith into their lives and culture; in others, there was a sense of enormous cultural loss.
Commissioned especially for ‘No.1 Neighbour’, and led by Australia David Bridie of Wantok Musik Foundation, was the immersive installation a Bit na Ta (Source of the sea). This work, developed through historical analysis of the period between 1875 and 1975 by Tolai historian Gideon Kakabin, presented the history of the politically active Tolai people of East New Britain from their own perspective. Delivered through songs written collaboratively by celebrated Tolai musician George Telek, Gideon Kakabin and David Bridie, with inpugumowt from Anslom Nakikus, the Matupit choir, elders Bung Marum and Revie Kinkin and the Gilnata, Moab and Amidel tribe string bands, among others, the installation exposed audiences to the events that shaped this century for the Tolai, including occupation by three colonial powers (including Australia), two world wars and three volcanic eruptions. Music threads through all facets of Tolai life and it was important that this be the primary medium for the installation, through which a Bit na Ta immersed Gallery audiences with its evocation of a Tolai cultural space and history.
Another major component of the exhibition examined the period immediately leading up to and after Independence in 1975. This period was characterised by much creative experimentation and vibrancy. Artists such as Akis, Mathias Kauage, Jakupa Ako, David Lasisi and Simon Nowep are often heralded as initiating new more ‘modern’ forms of expression, transferring traditional body painting, architectural and mark making traditions to canvas and paper. These were men whose fathers could remember the arrival of white men in their lands and were some of the first to become Christians: these works record the meeting of the two worlds, drawing on customary forms of expression to record and make sense of the demands, temptations and experiences of alienation within the processes of national modernisation.
‘No.1 Neighbour’ also highlighted the creativity of key Papua New Guinean women artists with the inclusion of works by Wendi Choulai, Mary Gole, Angelina Gumowe, the Ömie people, Florence Jaukae-Kamel, Lisa Hilli, Julia Mage’au Gray and Taloi Havini. The assertion of gender parity and the acknowledgment of women’s importance in promoting a healthy and creative society was one of the strong threads uniting the artists’ practices.
A group of shields from the Waghi valley, a pair of woven pukpuk crocodiles by Iatmul artists (recognised for their initiatory skin-cutting practices), and the work of Australian-born Chimbu artist Eric Bridgeman, explored the contemporary expression of masculinity. Central to all was the maintenance of customary processes of collaboration that enable young men to interact with their peers, establishing important relationships and alliances.
For those who missed the exhibitions bold colour, hauntingly beautiful singing, towering spectacular sculptural forms, lyrical lines, sensual textures, humour and sparklingly sophisticated expressions of our shared history watch the QAGOMA blog for the opportunity, coming soon, to undertake a virtual tour of the show.
Edited excerpt from article published in QAGOMA Artlines 3-2016.