Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) until 25 April 2022
Reviewed by Krisztina Turza
The highly anticipated 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) is a major milestone in the flagship exhibition series of the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). This behemoth effort of the curators and organisers is reflected in the 69 projects by more than 150 emerging and established artists from over 30 countries, the majority of which have been primarily commissioned for this event.
APT10 has expanded its geographical outreach and hence the curatorial focus. QAGOMA curators Tarun Nagesh, Reuben Keehan and Ruth McDougall have explained,
“The Australian Centre of Asian and Pacific Art (ACAPA), the Triennial’s research arm, provides the framework for further initiatives that broaden the community involved in the APT in focused and meaningful ways. The ACAPA Pasifika Community Engagement Project (ACE), co-curated with a group of ten dynamic young Pacific Islanders, specifically platforms the knowledge and values of Pacific communities in south-east Queensland. In addition, APT10 has played host to the inaugural Creative New Zealand Pacific Curator Residency (Australia) with Auckland-based artists and curator Natasha Matila-Smith and … artist-in-residence Brian Fuata.”
My eagerness to experience the APT’s unique combination of contemporary and traditional artworks means that I rush to the Gallery on opening day. It always amazes me how this exhibition is able to showcase cutting edge contemporary art (most prominently from Asia) together with the Pacific works, that still have a very customary look and feel, under one roof).
This is unique as international contemporary events normally focus on abstract, lofty, often complex artworks, that may or may not resonate with the audience that is attracted by traditional art forms still directly linked to the tribal practises and traditions. But how lucky are we that this geographic linkage serves as a cohesive element continues to serve as a unique characteristic of the Gallery’s APT events?
This is as an important educational tool, widening the horizon for those visitors fascinated by tribal art who are often without special interest for highly contemporary artworks, and vice versa; someone interested in current geopolitical issues represented by contemporary artworks, could easily overlook the simplicity of customary and traditional artworks.
With traditional artefacts ranging from Tonga to Taiwan, I have subjectively selected two traditional artworks/exhibitions, one from Papua New Guinea, and the other from the Torres Strait Islands.
This grandiose Indigenous Uramat Identity is curated by Ruth McDougall. Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) 2021 is a collaborative project inspired by the dynamic ceremonial practices of the Uramat families, who live in and around the township of Gaulim in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The project centres around and seeks to honour this community’s gift in 2018 of more than 70 ceremonial objects to the Gallery through the late Gideon Kakabin, and Uramat leader Lazarus Eposia.
Exhibiting spectacular sculptural qualities, some of these objects – the iconic Qawat (kavat) and Madaska masks – may be known to audiences familiar with museum collections and displays of what is often termed Baining art, which is celebrated internationally for spectacular night and day performances, and their associated masks. The Uramat are one of six linguistic subgroups of the tribe or group of people indigenous to East New Britain, who are incorrectly referred to as Baining. The word ‘Baining’ derives from the Kuanua language of the Uramat’s first colonisers, the Gunantuna (or Tolai), to whom Kakabin belonged. In Kuanua, Bai means ‘to go into the bush’ and ‘ningning’ means uncultivated area, so that Baining roughly translates as ‘wild, uncultured people who live in the bush’.”
What I found thrilling, other than the pleasure of seeing the tangible artworks such as the Mandas, Varhit and Sivirhitki masks, Irhhu and Sapkipoles, all created during 2017-18 by the Uramat clan members, was the brilliant concept of separating day and night by focusing on activities and artefacts prominent during the day, such as the Madaska, which extends up to three metres tall when worn over the head, as well as the Irhu spirit figures, whilst the Engini, a fire dance ceremony pertaining to the night, can be enjoyed in complete darkness, through immersive video and sound recordings, taking the audience to the place of the ceremony, in complete darkness, with the only visible light coming from the virtual fire, eliminating the Qawat (kavat) masks and costumes.
As Kakabin shared in his unpublished manuscript entitled The Uramat,
“It is important to acknowledge the role of the spirit world in the creation and use of masks. The Uramat believe in a parallel universe whereupon spirits exist in a world that is identical… to the physical world. Persons living in the real world have their counterpart in the spiritual world, protector and avenger in the spiritual world. In their daily routines, the Uramat are fully conscious of the existence of their counterpart spirits and must follow regulations to ensure that the two worlds coexist in harmony.”
It is interesting to note that while day masks, displayed at the entrance of the exhibition, are usually prepared in an open house, or abandoned gardens, the Qawat (kavat) night masks are intended to be seen only by initiated men. Women and uninitiated men can only cast their eyes upon these masks once the spirits have inhabited them and they are dancing.
Mer artists Grace Lilian Lee and Ken Thaiday Senior have created this spectacular piece with the outer frame, designed and produced by Thaiday, a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Dhari headdress, which was historically worn by Torres Strait warriors in battle.
“The Dhari is a potent symbol of the Torres Strait Island people and appears on their flag. The shape and designs of the two nestled Dhari reference ancient stone fish traps or Pennise, on the coastline of Erub Island, with the halo of feathers acting as fish caught in the traps. The structure is adorned with striking shark jaw motifs, invoking two beizam, or hammerhead sharks, coming together. In the Torres Strait, beizam – one of Thaiday’s family totems – is a mighty power that represents law and order, ‘boss of the saltwater’ according to Thaiday… The octopus, or suggoo, have many layers of relational significance, their form embodies Malo-Bomai spirituality, which recognises the unification of the eight clans of Mer and the establishment of laws of the land and water by heroic beings.”
In addition to the arbitrarily selected pieces described above, there are of course countless other traditional artefacts from the vast Pacific region, ranging from Tonga to Taiwan, all the way to Fiji and the Marshall Islands, which, together with the more contemporary pieces, can be seen until 25 April 2022.
Top Image Caption: Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) 2021 Project – APTX, Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) Photograph copyright Krisztina Turza.