– Spring/Summer 2019

Privileging Community Voices: Cultural Revitalisation in Museology and Contemporary Art from Papua New Guinea

Michael A. Mel

Asaro mudmen, Papua New Guinea, colour slides. Cochrane Papua New Guinea Collection, 1944–66. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives, Wollongong

Majestic rings of cane threaded with shell demonstrate a thriving indigenous economy in Papua New Guinea. Known as Tutana and Loloi, these arresting forms are created for display in public ceremonies by the Gunantuna (Tolai People) of East New Britain. Towering overhead and richly textured with jewel-like shells, Tutana confront and mesmerize the viewer with the wealth and social merit of their owners.
– Gideon Kakabin1

Background: Control and Denial

Papua New Guinea (PNG), like any other Pacific nation, is challenged as she navigates her way in the world in the twenty-first century. Economic, political and cultural challenges are posed by changes in local societies that were once enclosed largely due to geography. Located north of Australia, PNG comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and four large islands mainly to the north-eastern part of the country. As a nation, it emerged through European contact in the 1800s. The island was divided in two halves: the western half became Dutch New Guinea and the eastern was further divided. The northern half became German New Guinea and the southern half became British New Guinea and later the Territory of Papua, under British rule. After 1914 both Papua and New Guinea came under the colonial care of Australia. Papua New Guinea gained political independence in 1975. A rapidly growing population (seven million in 2011), PNG is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world with over 700 distinct languages.2 Prior to European contact, people lived in diverse environments. Tribal communities mostly lived in high-mountain dense forests, with increased elevation on subalpine-like grasslands, alongside vast river systems and waterways, near tropical rainforests, on savannah plains, around high volcanic islands, and on picturesque sandy and coral atolls. Many people continue to live in such environments. However, as modernisation creeps in, cities, townships, settlements and squats house a myriad of ethnically complex communities.

This text primarily provides a window to show and share curatorial processes taking place in Australia that privilege PNG communities, as opposed to internal and external stakeholders interested in merely profiting politically or economically from our cultural production. The project that I will discuss here, ‘The Asaro Field Acquisition Project’ at the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2016 engendered cultural revitalisation, and in turn directly responded to socio-economic changes in our region. As we will see towards the end of the text, this project outside PNG had a direct local impact on the protection of cultural heritage of the Asaro mudmen from Komunive village. The project also represented a challenge to the work we had been doing in the museum as well as for our visitors. The methodology used here gives lengthy space for stories and experiences of others, much inspired by our ways of relating to objects and stories in PNG. From the mountains to the lowlands, along the coastlines and to the hinterland, many generations of men and women have been inspired by experiences and visions to make their homes and build their societies. Examples of this are the stories recounted by Jim Gahiye, a direct descendant of the first mudman from Komunive who participated in this project by sharing his ancestors’ experiences with us.

The local landscapes, forms of social organisation and spiritual environments have all provided Papua New Guineans with a richness of objects and practices. These include tools, weaponry, masks, physical structures as well as assembled, fabricated and fashioned accoutrements used to adorn the body during ceremonies and rituals aimed at connecting societies. Songs, dances and stories imbue livelihoods: some of them function simply as entertainment, while others record history, connect families or navigate relationships and leave behind indelible footprints for future generations, as is the case with the performances of the Asaro mudmen.

Gunantuna (Tolai people), Gideon Kakabin, Loloi (shell money ring) and Tutana (largest shell money rings) with Ulang and Rumu (ceremonial spears), 2017. Installation view, ‘APT9’, 2018, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane. The Taylor Family Collection. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA. Courtesy the artists and QAGOMA

Challenging the Status Quo

Contemporary curatorial practices in PNG are beginning to change, albeit very slowly. The reasons for this will not be in the scope of discussions here, since this text focusses on art from PNG curated abroad. However, it is worth noting the existence of the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery. It opened in 1977 to pay homage to the over 700 distinct societies and their histories and heritage, together with histories of World War I and II in PNG, and contemporary cultural activities. The museum celebrates, shares and highlights its rich cultural collection, but outreach activities within the country have been very few and far from its mandated trust.

Acknowledging the dearth of PNG cultural activities at an institutional level, significant efforts have been made outside the country. Since its inception in 1993 the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), has engaged with PNG artists and communities. For instance, the 2012, 2015 and 2018 editions saw an excellent engagement with communities from the East Sepik and East New Britain provinces, breaking with mainstream exhibition practices and protocols. Gideon Kakabin, quoted at the beginning of this essay and one of the key interlocutors between communities and the APT8 and APT9, discusses the contribution of the Gunantuna (Tolai people) to APT9 (November 2018–March 2019). Tragedy struck when Kakabin passed away from a fatal heart attack on 20 August 2018 just before the opening of APT9.3 At the time he was working on a war history project involving his community in Australia.

For more than a decade the Australian Museum has been involved in efforts to move beyond the Western views on ethnographic collecting, knowledge practices and exhibition processes, particularly in relation to PNG artistic practices aiming for a more inclusive approach to working with indigenous societies. In 2010 the museum broke barriers to connect and engage with members of communities in the highlands of PNG (Jiwaka and Hela provinces) to participate in the public programme of the exhibition ‘Rituals of Seduction: Birds of Paradise’. Community members engaged with audiences through workshops, talks and performances. Such collective effort was recognised with an International Council of Museums (ICOM) Award for International Relations in 2012. Building on previous experience, the Australian Museum collaborated again with PNG communities. In September 2016, we presented a joint project with the Komunive society and their Asaro mudmen. In the language of the Komunive a mudman mask is known as holosa, which translates as ghost. Discussions and deliberations with the Komunive had started in 2010.

These projects have instigated questions that challenge Western traditions. Very often researchers/curators show a textbook-based approach to curating and exhibitions, overlooking the fact that a large number of cultural objects that adorn the shelves and cupboards of international museums were taken away from the communities, some of which still have a ‘social life’.4 For instance, researcher and curator Jude Philp met with Michael Ame, a member of Maipa village in Central Province PNG in 2008 in the Australian Museum collections together with a group of students and colleagues. While observing the cultural material, the Maipa villager found a woven bag brought to the museum around 1876. Michael, who spoke at some length of the design of the bag, identified it as part of his inheritance in the Maipa community. Philp adds:

The connection between an individual in 2008 who owned this design and an individual in 1876 … is one of those extraordinary events made possible through collections. It reflects the continuous life of the knowledge embodied in such things (in this case relating to fishing) that had been passed on from one person to another for more than one hundred years. It also achieves a kind of re-peopling of collections through the re-establishment of social connections, in this case between Sydney and Maipa.5

As PNG heads into new challenges, there is a need for indigenisation and decolonisation of knowledge production inside and outside the country, as well as for the development of museums and art spaces in such a direction that includes indigenous interlocutors and actors from the local communities. Curators and cultural interlocutors should facilitate and take on the role of an intermediary between community voices and institutions. Physical spaces are already available in Australia and PNG, but conversations and dialogue within them could acknowledge issues of history, heritage, politics, economics or futures to be navigated. This might be a way to throw light on objects with entangled histories that goes beyond the shelf/cupboard approach. Objects from major collections from PNG, including the collection at the Australian Museum and the South Australian Museum, just to name two among many in Australia and elsewhere, need stories that contextualise and account for the multiplicity of narratives contained in them, as with the example of the Maipa woven bag mentioned above.

Asaro mudmen, Papua New Guinea, colour slides. Cochrane Papua New Guinea Collection, 1944–66. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives, Wollongong

Privileging the Community Voices

The Komunive have their villages made up of family huts built out of thatch and woven panels for walls at the opening of the Asaro Valley, which stretches east towards Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province. The Komunive and their neighbouring communities have lived for many generations on fertile land where sweet potato, banana, taro and other vegetables grow in abundance.

For the Australian Museum’s ‘The Asaro Field Acquisition Project’, I served as a cultural liaison. In what follows, I will discuss the project in relation to the partnership formed between the museum – where I am now West Pacific collection manager – and the Komunive in Asaro.

Asaro mudmen of the Komunive village, Papua New Guinea, September 2016, performance, Australian Museum, Sydney. Photograph: Abram Powell. Courtesy the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum is one of the oldest museums in Australia, established in 1827 and opened in 1857. Built around the traditions of European museums, its main purpose was to serve as a storehouse of knowledge in natural history (mineralogy, palaeontology, zoology) and anthropology. Apart from the natural history collection, the museum’s Pacific cultural collection has 60,000 objects, which, surprisingly, as of 2016, did not include a holosa from the Asaro of the Eastern Highlands of PNG.

The project was led by collections officer Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, who served as Project Curator. She connected with the communities in Asaro to discuss the collaboration. Yvonne was joined by cultural liaison Klinit Barry from Kabiufa, just outside of Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands of PNG. Klinit had worked with the Australian Museum previously and had established herself as quite adept at connecting with communities and liaising with them to facilitate the sharing of their cultural knowledge, skills and processes with others. The focus of the project was to bring to the museum first collection of Asaro mudmen masks in an inclusive manner. The project aimed at documenting a nuanced picture of identity formations and relationships between the Komunive and the environment, considered part of people’s culture in order to support the continuity of these community practices.6

Asaro mudmen of the Komunive village, Papua New Guinea, September 2016, performance, Australian Museum, Sydney. Photograph: Abram Powell. Courtesy the Australian Museum

Asaro mudmen of the Komunive village, Papua New Guinea, September 2016, workshop, Australian Museum, Sydney. Photograph: Abram Powell. Courtesy the Australian Museum

Finding a community in the Asaro Valley was a major challenge for Klinit. This was because over the years Asaro mudmen dancers had become very popular with tourists and in high demand in hotels and cultural festivals. This represented a strong source of income for members of the community, causing groups from other communities to perform as Asaro mudmen, upsetting the leaders of Komunive village frustrated about the abuse against their cultural heritage.

The Story of Holosa as Told by Jim Gahiye

Klinit tracked down a man from Komunive called Kori. She explained to him in his dialect that she wanted to connect with the true owners of the tradition of the Asaro Mudmen, hoping to reach an elder to be able to access the genuine practitioners. Kori brought her to Jim Gahiye, an elder and knowledge-holder of the making of the holosa from Komunive. Through extended discussions between Klinit and Jim, much came to be shared between them. Jim recounts the emergence of the holosa:

A feast was being held in a neighbouring tribe at Kemanimo. Lupunuho and a group had been invited. They decorated themselves to go and dance. On the way there Lupunuho was to decorate by wearing charcoal to lead the dancers. This would clear the crowds and make way for the dancers. On the way, Lupunuho got an idea to dress himself differently from his compatriots. He covered his body with dark clay that he dug up from a nearby creek. He took a net bag, slipped it over his head and started to smear mud over his head and face. He dug out two holes for his eyes and built a kind of nose and holes for the nostrils, which looked like a dead person’s skull. Carefully he made his way to the village. His fellow dancers had put their headdress on and were starting to sing and go into the village. Lupunuho quietly walked up behind the dancers as they sang and danced. He drew his bow and aimed an arrow and followed his dancers without them knowing. When he entered the arena following his dancers, the people saw this ghost figure. The villagers started to shriek in fear and ran off to hide from the ghost. Realising what was happening Lupunuho’s own brothers also ran away. After scaring everyone off, Lupunuho went away and washed off the clay and hid the net bag and returned to the feast. Everyone was talking about this ghostly figure that had emerged and then had disappeared just like that! After returning from the feast, he shared his story and showed his dancers what had happened. They all thought it was comical, but also a great idea, so they decided to make this their own costume and dance.7

Jim adds that there is another story: neighbouring tribes came to fight with the Komunive to take their lands. The warriors of Komunive would paint their faces and cover their bodies with charcoal. On one occasion, they followed Lupunuho and instead of the usual battle dress, they wore old net bags and clay masks and painted their bodies like him. With bows, arrows and spears they surrounded their enemy, fearlessly approaching him. Upon seeing them, enemies fled from ‘the ghosts’. The community kept their land and their mud masks, which ever since became part of their folklore and tradition.

The Komunive Cultural Centre, Papua New Guinea, 2018. Courtesy Michael A. Mel

Holosa: The Making Process

The masks in the beginning were made plain with a net bag, but eventually designs were added on the faces of the masks. In order to make the true mudman headdress it was crucial to obtain ‘true clay’, from the lands next to the Kiapoka River, as Jim’s father taught him. Jim learned from his father the techniques to make the masks using split bamboo to make a round foundation to put on the clay, but eventually they figured out how to make the masks using just the clay, without the need for a woven net bag or bamboo. The raw material taken from the river was then carried for cleaning to the village centre. Experts pinched and stretched the clay to remove impurities. A handful was then taken up and rolled into small round lengths on a flat surface. One of the round lengths of clay would be laid out, and another round ring placed atop it. The layered rings were then smoothed with a couple of fingers and thumb of one hand on the inside and the outside, and an oval-shaped head then emerged. The end that rests on a flat surface remained open. The facial features, including eyes, ears and nose were formed and placed on the oval-shaped head. The faces of the masks were distorted and disfigured. Grotesque eye sockets were set, the ears and the nose protruding from the sides and front of the face. The gaping mouth, sometimes with a protruding grey tongue, had a row of pig’s teeth with large gaps pressed in on the lips. The forehead and cheeks were occasionally tattooed.

The Contemporary Holosa and their Collaboration with the Australian Museum

Their very first public performance, in which Jim’s father participated, took place at the 1973 Mt Hagen Show, a popular cultural event in the Western Highlands province of PNG where different tribal dance groups gather. As the dancers, all covered in clay, came out to dance, the crowd that had come from all over the Highlands region fled for their lives at the sight of the holosa!

The tradition continued and over the years Jim and his clansmen have performed in various shows in Goroka and elsewhere. In 2016 they were approached to collaborate with our project at the museum in Sydney and they gladly accepted. Through conversations, the plan was that Jim and three fellow villagers Steven Ketoriho, Kalo Kembu and Kori Guniyo would travel to Sydney to share the knowledge and skills of the masks and the dances that have earned the Komunive recognition all over PNG. The four men would embark in their first ever overseas trip with their holosa. When they left Komunive, the whole community came to the airport to say goodbye in a scene that looked more like a funeral: everyone cried and hugged the four men that were departing, also waving goodbye to the holosa carefully packed in crates. Klinit accompanied them on the trip. The group spent a little over a week at the museum in September. When they unpacked none of the holosa had been chipped or a single body part broken. The knowledge and skills with which the masks were prepared would not dry nor crack. To this day, each mask at the museum continues to retain the same form, shape and colour. The masks were then set up on bench tops along with all the costumes including bows and arrows, bamboo tubes for fingernails, net bags and extra clay they had packed, just in case some repairs were needed. Some of the clay was also used to smear over their bodies for performances. Through several activities under Public Programs, the group performed for the public, gave talks about their home in Komunive and the story of holosa, and provided workshops for children.8

During the performance some children engaged with the masks and swiftly turned away and hid their faces; others clung tightly to the grown-ups. The bamboo fingers crackled. The masked figure walked up to and past them in super-slow motion. In total contrast to the fear and trepidation that might have been shown, the engagements through workshops for children were very popular. By the time the last performance and the clay-making workshop took place, over 280 guests (adults and children) booked to attend.

Challenging Traditional Museologies

Colonialism enforced sweeping changes in the way people lived, denouncing lifestyles through narratives of primitivism and taking hold of people, their lands and their waterways in defence of ‘civilisation’. My own personal life story has also challenged the ‘old and the new’. I belong to the Mogei society. I was named Mek and grew up as a little boy in Kilipika village, in the Mt Hagen area of the Western Highlands. By the log fires in the round house at night and around Kilipika and Wila, my grandfather and uncles ensured that I grew up to be a fine man. With the arrival of the Europeans, the call was sent out by the colonial government for the young to be sent to school. My father enrolled me in nearby Holy Trinity Primary School. I was given the name Michael and learned to read and write and do arithmetic. After school I would run home. I learned the songs, dances and the knowledge of the Mogei people. In time, I have had to move away from Kilipika to further my education. I had to learn new ways. I now live and work with other people from other communities, negotiating my values and beliefs, and navigating the expectations of my community.

Discourses of natural selection, ethnography and anthropology were the flags of enlightened European museums and art institutions since the nineteenth century that also became the gatekeepers of indigenous pasts. In fact, such discourses have not changed much since then. The marginalisation of indigenous peoples, and the distortion of their stories and experiences through gatekeeping ‘their collections’, represents a great challenge for institutions today. Some European-like collections have dehumanised, decentred and devalued indigenous ownership and knowledge. It is precisely in this area that the presence of the holosa masks and the workshops and performances challenged the ways in which the Australian Museum had been working. This project added to several other projects on cultural decolonisation and challenged visitors to ‘…embrace an Indigenous authored past without the prostheses of a colonial interpretive apparatus’.9 The holosa provided an opportunity to see and experience art that activated, engaged and empowered a neighbouring community.

Dr Philipp Schorch, specialist in indigenous curatorial practices, thinks of museums as locations where various communities might meet in cultural exchanges around and through object collections. Referring to Clifford’s ‘contact zones’, Schorch suggests that meaning making in museums can be volatile and dynamic, and ultimately imbue a more productive cultural, economic and, indeed, political practice than those values for which the Australian Museum was created.10 Decolonising museum theories such as Schorch’s teach us museum managers that there needs to be less emphasis on possession and preservation, and more on the responsibilities of custodianship that enable use and circulations between communities and collections. The presence of the Komunive and the holosa in the museum made us question our own categories inherited from Western ways of organising and studying: are they anthropological objects, traditional art, contemporary art, artefacts or none of the above?

The holosa was not going to be handed over and kept hidden behind glass in the museum, shielded and protected from prying hands. This would have been imprisonment, a total denial of what Jim and later Amoi, another member of Komunive that sent his holosa to Sydney, had to say:

When I put my head into the mask the spirit enters, it comes inside me. I know then how our warriors in our history, how they prepared just moments before going in to battle. They obtained strength, to be strong and brave, to protect our lands and our women and children.11

Amoi decorated his mask with pig’s teeth, and he explained of decorating the holosa with the teeth in this way:

My mother used to look after pigs for our family. In her old age she had one pig that was very special. On her passing, I roasted the pig and distributed it to all of my uncles and aunties in my mother’s family. I have kept its teeth. Now I have decided to put this holosa with the teeth of my mother’s pig. When you take it to Australia, take care of it. Look after it so that my children will know.12

Contrary to all the protocols and expected behaviour in the museum, for some days when Jim and members of Komunive were there, no barriers between the collected and the collector existed. The glass in the display cases was shattered and the objects were not static: there was movement, warmth and a sense of connection between and among all.

The museum was turned upside down and inside out. Through their performances, the Komunive presence broke barriers with Australian children, parents, guardians and visitors. The encounters and engagements between both communities, Komunive and Sydney, challenged the very idea of a museum. The exchanges between people defied the logic and protocols of museums that until now tend to favour subject/object dichotomies and ethnographic types of interpretations that intend to attribute fixed meanings to objects. Jim’s story of the spirit of the warrior before battle in the donning of the mask and Amoi’s account of maternal links and motherly love and care, both provide a window into the Komunive. The holosa does not define, entail or embody the warrior. The holosa with his mum’s pig teeth does not embody Amoi’s mother. There is no singular object equated with a meaning. The holosa does more than contain meaning. It enables, facilitates and empowers relationships.

Postscript: The Komunive and Cultural Revitalisation

The welcome that Jim, Steven, Kalo and Kori received in Goroka was unprecedented. Families and neighbouring members of the Asaro tribe came on foot and in convoys of trucks and buses to receive the performers. A feast was organised in Komunive where food was served for everyone. The four men came back with new stories about the lengthy flights and their experiences with the Australian public. The locals couldn’t believe that their culture and their stories were given recognition. The community felt such pride. The neighbours’ interest to hear about the adventures of the men from Komunive in Sydney grew and grew so much that a small cultural centre was established. The Komunive Cultural Centre opened on 16 September 2018 with support from the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority. Members of the Komunive community are welcome to make small holosa figurines, bows, arrows and other tools that they can leave at the centre. A stage area has also been created for performances and presentations. Walks to the Kiapoka river, the site for the special clay, are being planned. The community declared that a long track in Kemanimo, where Lupunuho created the first mask as holosa, should be built. This is now under discussion. Visitors that might come to Komunive will hopefully see and experience the holosa.

Jim and a large contingent of villagers participated in the 2017 and 2018 Annual Goroka Show. Jim and the community have also sent word out to those nearby and further afield that the dances and holosa masks belong to the Komunive. No one else should now copy their masks or go under the name ‘Asaro mudmen’.13

  1. Gideon Kakabin, ‘Gunantuna (Tolai People)’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (exh. cat.), South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p.63.

  2. ‘Population’, National Statistics Office: Papua New Guinea, available at https://www.nso.gov.pg/index. php/population-and-social/other-indicators (last accessed on 28 January 2019).

  3. See ‘Vale: Gideon Kakabin’, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art [blog], available at https:// blog.qagoma.qld.gov.au/vale-gideon-kakabin/ (last accessed on 4 February 2019).

  4. See Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

  5. Jude Philp, ‘The Instability of Objects: A Collection of British New Guinea Natives’ Implements’, Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, vol.42, 2015, p.42.

  6. Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, ‘Holosa: Art, Identity and Place in Asaro’ (project brief for exhibition team), Sydney, Australian Museum, 2017, p.1.

  7. Video interview with Jim Gahiye by Dilen Doiki, Komunive village, 2016. Transcription by Klinit Barry, 2017.

  8. Claire Vince, ‘Asaro ‘Mud Men’ come to Sydney to share their culture and mud masks’ (press release), Australian Museum, Sydney, August 2016.

  9. Matt Poll, ‘Songlines, Museology and Contemporary Aboriginal Art’, Artlink, vol.38, no.2, June 2018, p.37.

  10. Philipp Schorch, ‘Contact Zones, Third Spaces and the Act of Interpretation’, Museum and Society, March 2013, vol.11, no.1, pp.68–81.

  11. Video interview with J. Gahiye by Dilen Doiki, Komunive village, 2016. Transcription by K. Barry, 2017.

  12. Video interview with Amoi by D. Doiki, Komunive village, 2016. Transcription by K. Barry, 2017.

  13. See ‘Mudman Custodians Urge Stop To Abuse Of Their Cultural Heritage’, Post-Courier: The Heartbeat of PNG, 20 September 2018, available at https://postcourier.com.pg/mudman-custodians-urge-stop- abuse-cultural-heritage/ (last accessed on 28 January 2019).