“Nunga Koom Talg Na Ta”…

The show began...

 

This is Michael Mel’s artistic performance entitled, “Shoosh! Na Kang Temani te tokor il. Nunga koom talg na ta” (Shoosh! I am chanting a tale. Give me your ears). It has a familiar Shakespearean ring to it but actually it comes from PNG! The chanted tale is presented in Michael’s language, Melpa – one of the major languages of Papua New Guinea spoken mainly in the Western Highlands Province. 

Michael was the co-curator and one of the PNG artists who brought the ‘Hailans to Ailans’ international exhibition of contemporary PNG art to London during Fall this year. He made his extraordinary debut performance in London on 24 September, 2009 at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. An absolutely riveting performance! How else could I describe it. 

Beautiful bilum carpet for Michael's performance. Bilum - an increasingly recognizable cultural item of PNG.

 

Michael, a performance artist and arts educator,  tackles the difficult issues confronting PNG and indeed humanity through his art. In this performance which he created for this show (re: Pamela Rosi write-up in the “Hailans to Ailans” catalogue), the message I took away was that the constant challenges of living in two worlds is a common characteristic of anyone who accepts someone else’s way of life, ideas, philosophy, religion etc and at the same time staying true to his/her roots. It’s like juggling lemons and oranges but not allowing one to hold sway over the other. Michael showed us that one can live in two worlds with respect, appreciation, dignity and love for life through a process of engagement and dialogue. 

Michael steps onto the makeshift stage of colourful bilum, chanting...

 

As Michael entered chanting, I had this feeling that we were about to witness another of Papua New Guinea’s unique forms of art. What’s more – a one-man show. His costume bore the symbols of Papua New Guinea – not of the Western Highlands or the Melpa tribe –  but of a nation which is struggling to grapple with some very real and deep development and cultural issues. 

This was to be another blockbuster uniquely Papua New Guinean performance.  I really was expecting an important message. I had no idea what that message was going to be but I knew that something exciting, moving, artistic and significant was about to happen or be revealed. 

I hope these pictures captured the breath-stopping performance of Michael and his art form and what I saw and witnessed that night. A performance with a carved wooden figure, a member of the audience, a screen which provided the background and narrative of the performance, plus vocal interventions at appropriate moments during the performance. 

 

 

War on cultural hegemony et al...

 

Michael’s story hit me between the eyes. I don’t know if others in the audience felt that too. His message was gut-wrenching. Never have I experienced an artistic presentation of a difficult topical issue in such an intelligent, sincere, gentle and creative way.  Mind you this was not even in a West End theatre, but nonetheless the quality was equal to that of a West End theatre production! As the story began to sink in, I felt my gut kicked inside out as tears rained down in silence in the dimly lit room. I shielded my face with my camera. I looked at the audience, all eyes were fixed on Michael. He was giving us a significant message of life through his performance.  Urging us psychologically to change our behaviour towards eachother and towards our environment. Powerful! 

The anguished expression - priceless!

 

The naked truth so brilliantly delivered! The plot of Michael’s performance was so profound and moving there was hardly a sound – only his voice and that of Rosanna Raymond’s (of ethKnowcentrix fame and another iconic artist from New Zealand) in collaborative partnership for the performance. The air was deathly quiet as he delivered each piece of his act. It was world-class! I ventured to think that the heart of every Papua New Guinean in the audience swelled with pride that evening.  Mine did. 

Indigenous culture etc - hidden, abandoned, annilated?

 

Frustration, fear and uncertainty?

 

Christianity in PNG - its advent, its influence, its impact...

 

Tightening the noose - who is responsible?

 

The yoke...in all its manifestations...

 

During his performance a screen at the back of the stage provided a sort of commentary of the various scenes. There was some sort of dialogue also or rather verbal interventions made by Rosanna Raymond (behind the scenes) at certain parts of the multiple-act performance stressing the messages as needed. 

Empowerment - liberation of cultural identity and expression...

 

A process of 'engagement and dialogue' - empowerment to co-create and share responsibility in all spheres of human life!

 

It was a brilliant one-man show. Perfectly planned and executed.  The impromptu engagement of a member of the audience was a pleasant surprise because it seemed to the unsuspecting audience a choreographed move.  I think that was the way Michael planned it. I was standing next to the gentleman when Michael invited him on to the stage. The invited guest graciously accepted the invitation, played along with the plot, and the net result? Perfect integration! Michael created a cultural jigsaw puzzle. He was weaving his story for us. In the process we  became a part of that story too – the subtlety was simply amazing. 

 

 

Shared responsibility...

 

The shared concern for the environment - its conservation, its sustainability

 

 

An audible gasp went up from the audience as the bags were emptied of their contents right there and then on the stage. The message came across loud and clear – we could choose environmental degradation or environmental sustainability. The choice was one that reaches far beyond the shores and boundaries of PNG – it is a mighty choice for  humankind to make. A 21st Century issue – very much current and serious. 

 

 

This performance was the most unique I’ve ever seen.   In his interview with Dan Lepsoe, Michael said, ” Storytelling features in our tradition as a tool to connect the past and present…it’s about bringing the past o the present, about creating opportunities for young people to say, “This is ours.”. There needs to be a process of engagement and dialogue. They need to be brought to the table.” 

About this performance, he shared this with Dan Lepsoe saying, “My work is all about audience engagement, about creating a presence, a shared meaning…In Western culture, there is a dichotomy between the world inside and the world outside. For us, there is a continuum: we are challenged all the time, and we challenge what’s outside us.” 

I hope that Michael, with the support of sponsors, will take this performance to every province of PNG – all 20 provinces (inclusive of the National Capital District).  This story needs to be shared with every Papua New Guinean. It is our story. 

Finally, from Michael’s documented interview with Dan Lepsoe, came this, ” Visual culture reminds us of what’s carried in our minds: performance art gives us occasions to share.” Spot on!

Hailans To Ailans: Groundbreaking International Exhibition Of Contemporary PNG Art in London, UK

Tapioca Dancers by Martin Morububuna (Painter)
Tapioca Dancers by Martin Morububuna (Painter)

In April this year I was pleasantly surprised and honoured to receive an invitation from Dr Michael Mel, Pro Chancellor of the Universithy of Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, to what I envisaged would be a fitting 34th Independence Day celebration present – a first ever international exhibition of contemporary PNG art. The back of my invitation read, “In the autumn of 2009, this ground breaking exhibition will showcase work in a variety of media including sculpture in wood and metal, performance and fibre art, and painting. Entitled Hailans to Ailans, which means “Highlands to Islands” in Melanesian Pidgin, the show will represent both male and female artists from the different regions of Papua New Guinea”.

Metal Sculpture by Tom Deko
Metal Sculpture by Tom Deko

It took exactly five months from the date of the invitation (16 April, 2009) for me to honour the invitation and I was blessed I did. I fronted up to the Rebecca Hossack Gallery at Fitzroy Square in London and felt so privileged and honoured to be present with the small PNG community in London, to celebrate PNG’s 34th Independence Day on 16th September, 2009 and to witness the opening of the historic two-part international exhibition of PNG contemporary art featuring five of Papua New Guinea’s iconic artists as well as celebrate the occasion. The exhibition was officially opened by PNG’s High Commissioner to the UK and Northern Ireland, Ms Jean Kekedo, OBE. We were treated to a private viewing of these iconic works of art. We got to witness the displays of Bilum Wear and Dr Mel’s performance on 24 September, 2009 at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery.  What an inspiration to up and coming young contemporary artists and an inspiration to all of us who are inclined to follow our dreams and share our God-given gifts. I should know as a singer and songwriter myself. The satisfaction one feels in sharing ones work but more importantly the appreciation that is shown by people who enjoy art and music that goes beyond aesthetics – that appreciation captures the spirit of the  artist and sustains his/her creativity.

Origin of the Eagle and Crocodile Clans by Claytus Yambon (Wood Carver)
Origin of the Eagle and Crocodile Clans by Claytus Yambon (Wood Carver)

The exhibition features fibre art (bilum and Bilum Wear), painting, performance, woodcarving and metal sculpture. With more funding I am sure half a dozen other PNG artists would have taken part in this contemporary art exhibition in two great international locations.

Stunning colours of the newest fabric from PNG to the fashion world.
Stunning colours of the newest fabric from PNG to the fashion world.

The exhibition opened in London at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London from 16 September to 17 October, 2009, then will move to the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, Canada. This unique groundbreaking international contemporary art exhibition is curated by Dr Pamela Rosi and Dr Michael Mel. The artists are: Cathy Kata (bilums and Bilum Wear (as in fashion), Claytus Yambon (woodcarver and also representing four other woodcarvers), Martin Morububuna (painter), Michael Mel (performance) and Tom Deko (metal sculptor). The exhibition is presented in a stunning pictorial catalogue of each artist’s work, a series of one-to-one interviews and articles by Pamela Rosi, Elaine Monds and others on each of the artists and their artworks.

Bilums from Cathy Kata
Bilums from Cathy Kata

According to Dr Michael Mel, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Goroka and a contemporary performance artist himself, “Hailans to Ailans, is a culture project seeking to promote better global recognition of the meanings, aesthetics, and values of contemporary PNG art. The exhibition is also an opportunity to celebrate the rich and varied history and heritage of PNG visual arts, and the capacity of artists in PNG to survive and be creative in confronting the challenges of modernization.”

Performance Art  by Michael Mel
Performance Art by Michael Mel

He went on to say that, “As viewers will see at the exhibitions in London and Victoria, contemporary PNG artists meld old and new in their art. Yambon carves narrative works that illustrate traditional myths and also works that reflect  every day life. Kata loops bilums in traditional and modern fibers and patterns; her bilum wear mixes media. Deko welds sculpture from recycled metal of subjects from village and urban life. Morububuna creates acrylic paintings inspired by Trobriand myths and ceremonies, but also images [of] modern society and its conflicts. Mel, through performance, engages with communities to use the artistry of theater to challenge and share language, knowledge, and ideas from his community and those of others.”

Founding of the Pig Clan by Lucas Tangun
Founding of the Pig Clan by Lucas Tangun

My first impressions of this historic ocassion is one of pride and joy. But I also asked in my mind, where is the fanfare? Did the show get the publicity it needed at home in PNG before it sailed across the seas? Why is it that PNG art and artists are appreciated more outside PNG – why? Nevermind dispela kain tingting. Apart from the invitation letter I received from Dr Mel and the High Commissioner’s invitation there was zilch by way of a headline in PNG. I sincerely apologise if I missed it! With funding coming from the Christensen Fund and NASFUND, it begged the question: what was the Government’s part in this exhibition: I kept on asking myself why the Government was not able to put its money where it’s mouth is and support the very people, artists in this case, to promote PNG’s identity or part of it abroad and inside PNG. Despite these questions and musings, I felt a sense of great pride that I was able to be part of the first batch of people to view these art works.  I also realised that it takes a long time for a gallery to host an exhibition of this kind. I am grateful that Rebecca Hossack, the owner of the gallery and a long time friend of the late Kauage, a lengendary and iconic artist himself within PNG and abroad, hosted the exhibition. Ties like these are hard to come by especially if they work towards the benefit of PNG interests – in this case a groundbreaking international exhibition of contemporary PNG art.

Metal Sculpture by Tom Deko
Metal Sculpture by Tom Deko

The catalogue of these unique artworks costs £16.00. Inside the catalogue is a price list of all the exhibited works both in British Pounds (GBP) and Canadian Dollars (CDN). If you are interested in purchasing any of these artworks, please contact either of the galleries: RH Gallery, London – info@rebeccahossack.com or http://www.r-h-g.co.uk and at Alcheringa Gallery – alcheringa@islandnet.com or http://www.alcheringa-gallery.com

Titles of the artwork  – courtesy of the “Hailans to Ailans” catalogue.

Contains interviews, articles and great photos of the artworks
Contains interviews, articles and great photos of the artworks

This international exhibition will close on 17 October, 2009. The exhibition in London is at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. From the bottom of my heart I am sincerely grateful to the artists, the curators, Rebecca Hossack Gallery, designers and compilers of the exhibition catalogue, and all the wantoks in London who have contributed to a great Independence Day celebration and art exhibition.