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Not Without a Cost: Contemporary PNG Art in the 21st Century

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Not Without a Cost: Contemporary PNG Art in the 21st Century
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  Gender, Location and Tradition: A Comparison of Two Papua New Guineancontemporary artists    Jacquelyn A. Lewis-Harris  The emerging world-art world is epitomized in the contemporary art scene of Papua NewGuinea (PNG). This art phenomenon is fairly recent, having developed in the late 1960s. It encompasses art forms based upon older “traditional” shapes as well as the newe r syncretic styles influenced by foreign media and techniques. For scholars these works areintellectually contentious because they challenge both western and indigenous notions of art. By not fitting either into art historical or anthropological descriptive categories, suchart works not only contest definitions of fine arts and crafts, but they confound customaryunderstandings of group identity as well.Several writers have argued that in the years around independence in 1975 thesesyncretic forms of art have played a central role in shaping  —  if not creating  —  a nationalidentity (Narokobi 1990, Ottq 1997, Iamo and Simet 1998). During the early years after independence both village-based and urban artists were encouraged to createcontemporary art with a nationalist theme. But by the 1980s it was clearly that thefinancial susccess of this new art movement would be dependent on international artvenues, and this new Papua New Guinean art world would be market driven andinfluenced by foreign curatorial dictates (Simons and Stevenson 1990; Choulai 1997;Raabe 1999).   Two types of contemporary art became prominent in PNG, the “arts gallery”faction and the “neo - traditional group (Simons and Stevenson 1990). “Arts gallery” works used foreign media and styles that resembled the work of artists in Australia, theUnited States, and New Zealand. The artists who create these syncretic works are either graduates of government high schools, technology colleges, universities, or the National  Arts School, or from a select group of self- taught artists. “Neo - traditional” artists are  producing a variety of objects, all of which relate to the materials and shapes found infunctional village art forms or traditional ritual objects. Some of these objects arecontemporary reproductions of old ceremonial objects, such as masks, drums, or carvedfigures that depict spirits, totemic emblems, or mythological characters;others areextensions or revised versions of important traditional forms, such as the larger or morecomplex carved figures so commonly produced along the Sepik River today. Yet another class of objects consists of the creation of new designs within prescribed traditionaltechniques and forms, including such items as string bags (bilums) now made withcolorful acrylic yarn, basketry woven as platters, trays, or clothes hampers, textiles, andceramics. The majority of neo-traditional art is sold in the international artifact andhandcraft market, and only a small portion is produced for domestic consumption.   The evolution of contemporary art in PNG raises several issues and questions.Can contemporary art continue to represent the nation if it is created for the foreign artworld market? Can contemporary artists truly represent their heritage and personalconcepts of cultural inclusion while successfully participating in international art worldmarkets? This paper explores these questions by contrasting the lives of twocontemporary Papuan New Guinean artists. To do so I consider their different socialworlds and the resultant influences upon their art and personal identities. Art in Two Worlds: Concrete or Rainforest?   During my six-year stay in PNG (1981-1987), I worked with Saun Anti and WendiChoulai while employed by the United Nations Development Program and the PNGgovernment. Subsequently I maintained a long friendship with Wendi Choulai until her death in 2001.Saun Anti is a senior male artist, who was raised within the fairly traditionalculture of the western Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik River. Anti (Figure 1) was an  initiated Iatmul elder, who came from a highly- structured men‟s house society that still maintains many of its srcinal customs and traditiona art forms. This area of PNG isfairly remote and has few opportunities for growing cash crops or other sources of income. The region has come to depend upon the preservation of the traditional formsassociated with ceremonies and arts, as a way of attracting much desired tourist income. To be initiated into to the men‟s house (or  haus tambaran) society Anti had undergone painful scarification on his back and chest to produce dramatic scars. Life as a member of  the men‟s cult was governed by strict rules of behavior and organized into several agegrades within the cult. The men‟s house, itself, was an i mposing structure thatcommanded a dominant place in the village. In some parts of the Sepik region, this architecture reflects the men‟s physical well being and symbolically represents the body of the ancestral mother (Thomas 1995; Silverman 2001). With rare exceptions, womenwere not allowed to enter the house or participate in its secret ceremonies, as their femine power would pollute and negate the rituals.   Wendi Choulai (Figure 2), in contrast, is a younger female artist of mix-heritage,who largely g rew up in Port Moresby, the nation‟s capital and largest city. She did,however, have prolonged stays in her mother‟s village along the Central Province coast near Brown River. Her upbringing was influenced by a combination of Malay Chinese,Solien Besena, Motu-Koita, and Australian cultural patterns. During her childhood in the 1950‟s many of the cultural traditions were still essentially intact, but undergoing significant changes in the face of foreign influences and Motu-Koita cultural dominance.The Motu-Koita people are the customary landowners of Port Moresby, who have had thelongest period of sustained contact with the West as well as having benefittedeconomically, politically, and socially from these encouters (Belshaw 1957, 1965; Oram1976; Johnson 1983).    Inspiration or Meddling Ancestors in the Middle Sepik Region?   Traditionally, the Sepik River is one of the most important art producing regions in PNG.Its intricate designs and carving styles appealed to the early explorers and collectors fromthe 1880s onward, and it remains one of the most prolific art producing and art exportingregions in PNG. Internationally, nearly all museums that have holdings of Melanesian or  New Guinea art will have examples of art from the Sepik.   The cultures of the Sepik River area can generally be divided culturally andgeographically into three subregions: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Sepik. Of these theMiddle Sepik is the most important and is currently the home of many art exporting businesses, some owned by private companies, others under the direction of the Catholicmissions and occasional government-run enterprises. Some of the best known carvingvillages are Korogo, Palimbei, Kanganaman, Mindimbit, and Tambanam in the MiddleSepik.By the 1980s Saun Anti had become a highly regarded carver from Indabuvillage, an artistically conservative Iatmul village. In 1986 it was in economic decline.Many of the young men were working outside of the region, and the remaining population was dependent upon subsistence farming and what income they could earnfrom tourist-related activities. The haus tambaran was modest in size and still in use. Allceremonially valuable art was carved in the prescribed forms dictated by its use in the haus tambaran   men‟s society. The st yles and motifs of the pieces were closely associated with land ownership, the society‟s power, and clan and ethnic identity (Thomas 1995; Wassmann 2001; Silverman 2001). Silverman (1999:55) reported among eastern Iatmulthat:   Sacred objects do not represent totemic spirits; they are spirits. An ornamented art object is a “body” (mbange ) animated by the totem‟s “soul” ( kaiek  ). The wooden  carving is akin to “bones” ( awa ); decoration is skin ( tsiimbe ). Totemic entities( tsaginda ) signify the mystical power and fertility of a specific descent group.   For example, during earlier times when intertribal warfare was commonplace, victoriouswarriors not only took the heads of their fiercest competitors, but they also removed the best sacred art and burned the remaining structures and ceremonial objects. Thus, theyhad performed one of the most serous offences against a people, capturing their spirit, power, and identity through their art (Bateson 1958).When I met Saun Anti, he was more than sixty years old, a senior member of the haus tambaran, and a respected traditional carver. He had been initiated and was privy to much of his clan‟s ritual knowledge. He had specialized in carving particularly ancestralfigures that were used during men‟s initiation rituals. Thes e pieces were used asmnemonic markers of important cultural tenets. As Thomas (1995:51) noted:   Initiation at each phase generally takes the form of some kind of terror or ordeal.After which novices are shown the secret sacred objects or musical instrumentsassociated with the grade. Through most of its stages, the cult is closely connectedwith a ceremonial house erected either specifically for  Tambaran rites or used in alonger- term way as a men‟s house. Anti also taught initiation chants and oral history related to these works of art. He hadinstructed all his relatives in the appropriate style of  haus tambaran sculpture, and had become a high-ranking member of the tambaran society. He was a custodian of traditional customs, who worked to maintain the power and influence of the haustambaran within his society.
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