Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvesting the Arts and Culture

Our arts, literature, and cultural knowledge systems were employed to define the nation we are proud of today. If we need to make the Vision 2050 work let us put our money into reaffirming our sense of what it means to be a Papua New Guinean through our arts and literary culture. My boldness in making this statement is derived from the foundations set by our early writers and artists.

Under Ulli Beier's guidance, young Papua New Guineans used writing, drama, poetry, and arts to capture national sentiments and to promote PNG cultures. Beier’s book Decolonising the Mind is not just a memoir that recalls the Beiers' time in Papua New Guinea; it also tells of the activities and people with whom they associated during the period leading up to independence. It covers the vibrant period of literature, art, performance, writing, and publishing at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). This was a time of quick planting and harvesting of the literary and artistic talents that the Beiers stumbled into, waiting as it were to be nurtured, given impetus, and made to bloom.

From subtle nationalism to fiery anticolonial resistance; from imagining one's own community to living in one that is about to be independent—those were the moods of the period. Those Papua New Guineans that the Beiers influenced—such as Albert Maori Kiki, Vincent Eri, Kumalau Tawali, Leo Hannet, Mathias Kawage, Akis, Taite Aihi, and Ruki Fame—have all shown that the arts and literary culture have a purpose to serve the people of Papua New Guinea.

The main thread of the book is about the impact of the university on culture and identity in Papua New Guinea between 1971 through 1974. Ulli Beier is telling us his story about what happened in between those years. After spending many years working to promote the art and literature of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Ulli and Georgina Beier came to Papua New Guinea in September 1967 to teach at UPNG.

One of the first Papua New Guineans they met on their way to the country, late at night in the departure hall of the Brisbane Airport, was Sir Albert Maori Kiki. Ulli recounts that encounter: "On the plane we had a brief conversation. His name was Albert Maori Kiki, he said. He had been a patrol officer to the Australian administration, but he had recently resigned from that position in order to become the secretary of a new political party. I asked him what part of the country he was from and he said: "Well, you wouldn't have heard of it, it's a very small place on the Papua Gulf called Orokolo" (22). Such openness on the part of Maori Kiki led Ulli Beier to help Kiki publish his autobiography, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime (1968), a book that would trigger a wave of excitement, not only in Papua New Guinea, but internationally as well. The second autobiography that Ulli had a hand in was Sir Michael Somare's Sana (1975).

Ulli Beier also passionately recounts his work with pioneer UPNG students, then referred to as the "boys' university." He discusses establishing a relationship with Allan Natachee, the Papua "Poet Laureate" (12-19), developing the UPNG creative writing course, and starting a publication series called the Papua Pocket Poet series (43-50). From the creative writing class, Ulli recalls: "One of my first and most fascinating students was Vincent Eri. He was a mature student, 31 years old, who had been an education officer. He had twice visited Australia and had been to a conference in Teheran. In 1966, he was sent to Malaysia to represent Papua New Guinea at a writer's conference. This experience inspired Eri to write his first and only novel, The Crocodile (51-60), which was also Papua New Guinea's first novel, published in 1971.

Then, in later years, Ulli was inspired to establish the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Ulli was supported by his wife, Georgina, on his mission to accomplish this dream—or perhaps it is better considered an awakening. Georgina provided mentorship and guidance to artists, sculptors, and textile designers in the studio behind their house. This was the beginning of what later would become the National Arts School, an icon of an era rich with artistic flowering. The Beiers also helped to foster the work of pioneer artists at the Center for New Guinea Creative Arts and formed a close relationship with the center's Mathias Kawage, who became the most original and prolific of all PNG artists and brought contemporary PNG arts to the world.

The book is dedicated to John Gunther, first University of Papua New Guinea vice chancellor, and to Kawage. Ulli also devoted his attention to theater, and joined Peter Trist and Frank Johnson in the founding of the University Drama Society (which also included Professors Clunnies Ross, Leo Hannet, and Arthur Jawodimbari). The first plays were Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Euripides' Alcetis, and a sketch in Pidgin entitled, Em rod bilong kago (Road of Cargo) by Leo Hannet (staged in April 1968). Later plays, however, were written by peoples of Papua New Guinea--Rabbie Namaliu's The Good Woman of Konedobu, Cannibal Tours (later turned into a brilliant film by Dennis O'Rourke), Arthur Jawodimbari's The Sun, Kumalau Tawali's Manki Masta, and of course Ulli Beier's two plays They Never Return and Alive (written under the pen name M Lovori).

The memoir is written with passion and honesty. As expected, it is a book rich with vivid recollection and dedication to the arts, artists, writers, and people of Papua New Guinea. It gives these pioneer artists the place they deserve in PNG history. Equally, I think, Ulli Beier deserves a national recognition by way of a Logohu Award or an honorary doctorate from UPNG.

The reminder here is that our nation is in dire need of the artistic, literary, and cultural energy to move it forward.

Note: The original review was published in The Contemporary Pacific. vol. 19: 1 (Spring 2007).

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