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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!