We often assume that our tribal art expresses the symbolic commemoration of ancestors and the representation of clan spirits. Masks and carvings are supposed to stand for such figures, making them become the canonical icons of primitive cultures that predate the arrival of Europeans. Appropriating them to suit the modern fashions, uses, and in institutional adaptations raises the question of incongruity. The perceived notions of cultural conflicts and contradictions are underscored by one simple rule: culture is always in a flux and so too are our needs, perceptions, and notions of who we are and what we do to maintain that identity in the face of change.
In his book Oceanic Art (1995) Nicholas Thomas explains the significance of our tribal art: “Ancestors and deities, however, are important not simply because they are dead or divine, but specifically because legends concerning their accomplishments frequently account for the ways in which life, work and political relations are organized; they might describe the origins of a society, in the case of creator-beings and founding ancestors, or in a localized sense, tell of more recent human ancestors, whose deeds are often the basis of claims to land, rank or ritual authority.”
A reader of this column wanted to know how much of our traditional art forms and designs are transferred into the modern textiles and fabrics used in Papua New Guinea. Beyond personal use, there are visible expressions of the public taste for local art and designs on laplaps, tee shirts, bilums, and other everyday material items.
Our traditional material cultures and art forms have also been institutionalized in various places such as in the Parliament, in various churches, educational institutions, and on the legal tender of Papua New Guinea.
The observation of a day in the week reserved for traditional wear seems to have vaporized into thin air, leaving us wondering how serious we are when it comes to the promotion of art and culture in our country. We need to do more.
Consider this: would it make a difference if UPNG decides that for 2011 graduation the gowns and hoods will adorn the traditional art and design of PNG? My views are reserved, but that decision to institutionalise PNG art and design on UPNG gowns remains with the powers that maybe.
I am thinking of art forms and material cultures as the embodiments of many cultural narratives that form the national storyboard of Papua New Guinea as a land of thousand tribes, thousand parliaments, thousand peoples, with thousand cultures and thousand traditional knowledge systems. Our ancestors have lived in this land for thousands of years without a written culture, but which by no means make our people less developed or less intelligent than others.
“Given the narratives of various genres are prominent in both oratory and everyday talk in Oceanic societies,” says Nicholas Thomas, “ it would not be surprising if art forms that possessed no obvious narrative content for an uninformed outsider were, nevertheless, understood as bearers of stories. This can even be true of objects that do not represent deities, protagonists or places that figure in myths and traditions: Queen Salote of Tonga said, ‘Our history is written in our mats’, referring to the exchange relations, kinship bonds and links between aristocratic titles that would be connoted, to the knowledgeable person, by particular fine mats. These artefacts bear their histories, as do Maori taonga (treasures) and high-ranking Trobriand shell valuables.”
There is more to say about the embedded narratives in our tribal arts and material culture that we draw inspirations from to tell our contemporary stories, but our interest now is how we can also package these to serve our need for positive national imageries. Take the storyboards of the Kambot in the East Sepik Province, which have been sought after by many people in the world. The distinctive openwork carvings have no obvious antecedents in traditional art forms in the Kambot area.
“The closest parallels” says Nicholas Thomas “are in filigree plaque figures, from Maprik villages such as Roma, further up the Sepik on the northern side of the river; travel associated with plantation work may have brought Kambot artists into contact with Maprik carvers or their products. They have been produced specifically for sale to tourists since the 1960s and have proved popular, partly because they convey something exotically simple that appeals to collectors. The most prominent figures are usually crocodiles and groups of men paddling canoes, and is probable that myths of origin and migration are referred to, although the meanings attached locally to carvings have not been documented.”
Some of our art forms are now twirled into the bilum designs. It is fashionable these days to give a bilum as a gift to someone. A recent publication: Twisting Knowledge and Emotions: Modern Bilums of Papua New Guinea, compiled and edited by my colleague, Nicolas Garnier, attests to the remarks I make here on bilums as the bearer of art and local narratives that we are too happy to share with visitors to our country.
Garnier observed that bilums have become an important economic source of income for many women: “From an economical point of view, making of bilums, amongst other resources, have provided an opportunity for women to participate in cash economy, such as tourist market which, although limited, contributes to creating a “national” identity of bilums.”
We have to move away from thinking of indigenous art as “associated with cult activities, or within transmission of sacredness, or within the statuses of powerful individuals”, says Nicholas Thomas (1995). “Some arts forms were primarily connected with the propitiation of spirits; many certainly aimed to evoke their presences; but others were ancestors and even recent white intruders. Oceanic art possessed not a single presentation, the embodiment of ancestors and storytelling: it incorporated all these things and more.”
Changing negative attitudes of ourselves can take place if we shift our attention to using our art forms. Art can be used as a powerful tool to transform mindsets today.