By Pierre Laffont
The XIII Pacific Art Association (“PAA”) international Symposium took place over four days on 24-28 March in Brisbane. It was organised by the Queensland Museum in partnership with all the major cultural institutions on the South Bank of Brisbane (Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Gallery/ Gallery of Modern Art (“GOMA”), State Library of Queensland and Griffith University).
Strangely enough, it was part of the World Science Festival Brisbane program and it was thought that people interested in the Science program will be open to what the Symposium had to offer. If so, it must have been quite a disappointment for the organisers, as the two events do not seem to have cross fertilised very much. The mass audience of the Science program did not flock to the PAA Symposium. The attendance, as far as I could ascertain, was mostly made of aspiring, present and retired curators and academics from the forty PAA institutional members, museums and universities which may hold between themselves the bulk of public collections and knowledge on Pacific Art. More than 80 out of the 100+ attendees were speakers in the presentations, panel discussions or performances. Few people like myself were pure art lovers/collectors.
Apart from the keynote addresses at the beginning of each day, the other activities were run in parallel in four different places all over the South Bank, making it impossible for one person (or even a couple like myself and my partner, who often did not attend the same sessions) to have a full picture of the symposium. A link to the full program could, and still can, be found on the OAS website (https://www.oceanicartsociety.org.au/paa-xiii-international-symposium-registration-open/) . The popularity of the sessions did not always reflect the quality of the presentation and it worked like blind dates at best (or speed dating at worse, when one had to run between potentially intriguing speakers/actors). We were no more than a handful of people for a very informative session on the Bangarra Dance theatre by former dancer and Youth Program Director, Yolande Brown.
I ended up being alone for a remarkable performance by Welsh Tasmanian indigenous artist Alicia Jones. I would have preferred not to draw conclusions from my limited experience, but I did: performance art may not have been the passion of the average PAA Symposium participant, nor Aboriginal art, possibly reflecting the relative absence of large Aboriginal historic and contemporary collections in the institutional members of the PAA. Conversely, lectures or panel discussions on Pacific art outside Australia, either contemporary or traditional, were well attended, even if the simultaneous presentations at different locations meant that each venue was far from full.
To finish with these reflections on the form of the Symposium before addressing the content, let me say that there is no criticism on my part on the organisation of the Symposium itself: it was perfect. My only regret is not to have seen a much larger and more diverse audience, especially from Brisbane and Queensland. Not that I dislike the PAA faithful base, which is a happy crew. But I remembered with fondness the lively ambience of the last triennial PAA International Symposium in Auckland given by a large and vocal local presence of New Zealanders of Maori and Pacific Island origin. I was acutely reminded of this atmosphere when Yuki Kihara , after presentation of her talk show series with Fa’afafine about Gauguin, reminded the audience that questions were only accepted first from indigenous women and then from non-indigenous women. I hope that, after having read the next part of my expose you will share the additional disappointment that not more people from Queensland attended so many and unique opportunities to further their appreciation of Oceanic Art.
Regarding the content, the theme of the symposium was “Resilience: sustaining, re-activating and connecting culture”. It acknowledged the strength of Pacific contemporary art and cultural production in maintaining, reviving and connecting indigenous cultural practices on a global stage. And the proof was in the pudding, as demonstrated in the same buildings where the symposium was taking place: many of the speakers were talking about art on display next door in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art which was taking place concomitantly from 24 November 2018 to 28 April 2019. By walking a few steps, everyone could have had an immediate dialogue between the artwork and those who created, installed or commented. Just a few examples:
- “Women’s Wealth” in the Art Gallery focussing on weaving of fan-shaped Biruko and ornate Tuhu hoods by Bougainville women. This spectacular exhibition was co-curated by Sana Balai, who some OAS members may remember as the too brief curator of the Pacific Art collection on a too brief display at the Victorian Gallery of Art in the mid 2000’s. Sana, in addition to showcase her exhibition, participated actively in many PAA lectures, giving her unique point of view. Elizabeth Thomas from GOCOMA addressed the role of the conservator in the preparation of over 100 artworks for this exhibition, a magisterial lesson for any collector of Oceanic Art.
- “Gunantuna”, majestic rings of cane threaded with shells at the entrance of GOMA, by lead artist Gildeon Kakabin. Not only a masterpiece but a logistical challenge as explained by Catherine Marklund from QUAGOMA, a feeling that anyone who collected large Oceanic sculptures and transported them into Australia or elsewhere knows all too well.
- “In pursuit of Venus” by Lisa Reihana at GOMA. Michael Martin presented that work to the OAS readers in the OAS journal dated December 2018. It had been on display at Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and we were fortunate to see it in Brisbane. Hopefully it will tour Australia as it is such an intriguing and popular work. Stephanie Xatart took this work as one of her examples in her lecture to reappraise the materiality of the art of prominent Pacific Islanders artists.
- “Somuk”, an exhibition at the Art Gallery on one of the earliest and most internationally renowned Bougainville artists. Nicolas Garnier, Curator of Oceanic Art at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac gave a fascinating interpretation of these works.
- Many other remarkable works at the APT from the Marshall Islands and other Islands were debated by a “most interesting” panel called “Women’s Wealth Revalued” by Margaret Jolly, Anna-Karina Hermkens and Katherine Lepani. I mentioned this “most interesting” comment from my wife, as it is an example of a session I did not attend, having made a different choice at the time. Too much of a good thing …
And the list could go on and on, and on. Do not forget: more than 80 speakers to choose from. I tried (but not too much) to remain open minded but I gave a strong preference to Melanesia over Polynesia and Micronesia, to use a dated geographical distinction, and a moderate preference to French presenters over other foreign speakers (they all presented in very good English, but I like to hear what my compatriots had to say about Oceanic Art). In doing so, I pleased myself with:
- Yvonne Carillo-Huffman previewing a future exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney on Beetles, Barkcloth and Hair in PNG Highlands Adornments. This is going to be a cracker!
- Jean-Phillipe Beaulieu presenting his film on the Malagan Ceremony in Tabar Islands in 2006. Fantastic film of 16 minutes, a must view for all Malagan aficionados. DVD on sale by Jean-Philippe for $10, a bargain!
- Mike Gunn on the Ambum Stone. Mike was nice enough not to have mentioned that it was broken in a museum in Marseille, France. From this tragedy came the opportunity of dating (conservatively) one of the oldest objects from PNG.
- and many, many more. I even had to exclude those presentations I would have surely enjoyed but could have another chance to hear elsewhere (like the one by Crispin Howarth, Curator for Pacific Art at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra on an old battered hat from Hawaii).
At the end of the day, my choices of lectures/ performances tended to please pre-existing passions and this brief presentation may give a very biased view of what the 2019 PAA Symposium in Brisbane may have been all about. I am looking forward to the next PAA international Symposium in three years!