Anda di halaman 1dari 30

Art and Life in Melanesia

Other works by the same author:

A Black and White Family Album: Mother and Daughter Memoirs
of Papua New Guinea 1950s-1970s
Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea
Brtara: Contemporary Pacific Art
Art and Life in Melanesia


Susan Cochrane

Art and Life in Melanesia, by Susan Cochrane

This book first published 2007. The present binding first published 2012.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright 2012 by Susan Cochrane

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-4067-X, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-4067-5

This book is dedicated to
all the artists and friends of artists
who collaborated wholeheartedly with the project.
Acknowledgements p ix
Chapter 1 Introduction by Michael Mel p 1
Chapter 2 art & life + Melanesia p 10
Chapter 3 art & life + kastom p 19
Chapter 4 art & life + exchanges p 34
Chapter 5 art & life + indigenisation p 52
Chapter 6 art & life + christianity p 63
Chapter 7 art & life + festival p 76
Chapter 8 art & life + market p 88
Chapter 9 art & life + copyright p 103
Chapter 10 art & life + urban clan p 118
Chapter 11 art & life + open learning p 133
Chapter 12 art & life + cultural politics p 153
Chapter 13 art & life + urban culture p 165
Chapter 14 art & life + diasporas p 189
Captions for centrefold colour images Fig. 1-24 p 208
Glossary p 212
Works Cited p 216
Index p 226


This book would not have been possible without the interest and cooperation
of many artists, scholars, curators and friends and I express my deep gratitude
for all the contributions they have made to this book. In particular, I wish to
thank Dr Michael Mel for his participation in this project by contributing the
Introduction and for his many constructive comments. I acknowledge the
continued support and collaboration of Papua New Guineas contemporary
artists over the past two decades with projects to present and promote their art,
and I pay my respects to Jakupa Ako and Mathias Kauage OBE, who have
passed away. Special thanks to Emmanuel Kasarherou, Director of the Tjibaou
Cultural Centre, and the DAPEX team for assistance with photographs of
artworks from their unparalleled collection. Ralph Regenvanu, Director of the
Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta, has given support and interest to this project. Contact
with Torres Strait Islander artists and art students was assisted by Brian
Robinson, Curator of the Cairns Regional Gallery, Anna Eglitis and Theo
Tremblay of the Aboriginal and Islander Art School at the far North Queensland
College of Technical and Further Education. In the Solomon Islands, Lawrence
Foanaota, Director of the National Museum has always been most helpful, as
has Epeli Hauofa, Director of the Centre for Oceanic Arts and Culture at the
University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
Many artists, friends and colleagues have readily lent photographs and
provided information about artists in remote areas. Thank you Alfred and Mary-
Lou Uechtritz, Albert Speer, Helen Dennett, Jutta Malnic, Carl Warner, Robert
McLennan and Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris for assistance with images of artists in
Papua New Guinea; to Michael Cookson, Robyn Roper, Greg Poulson and
Karen Jacobs for hard-to-get information and images of art and artists in West
Papua; thanks also to Moses and Marilyn Havini for Bougainville, Clive Moore
and Lawrence Foanaota for the Solomon Islands.
I have included a number of images taken by my parents, Percy and Renata
Cochrane, in the 1950s and 60s, to add some depth of time. Their archive, the
Cochrane Papua New Guinea Collection, which includes hundreds of images, is
held at the Michael Birt Library, University of Wollongong, and I thank the
archivist, Susan Jones, for her assistance in retrieving them. Special thanks to
my daughter, Renata Bliss, for the book design.

My appreciation goes to the many artists who provided images of their own
artworks and permission to reproduce them. In a few cases, despite repeated
efforts, I have been unable to make contact with artists due to remoteness and
lack of communication facilities; many villages in Melanesia have no phone,
mail service or Internet facilities. In such cases, I rely on permission given
orally at the time the images were taken.
It should be noted that the selection of images in this book do not necessarily
represent the greatest recent and contemporary art of Melanesia that would
require a huge team and unlimited funding to cover all individual artists,
communities, regions and events. Rather, the images are representative of
readily accessible and visible Melanesian art and artists and the selection
supports the themes of the chapters, which explore a number of aspects of
contemporary art and life in Melanesia. The most extraordinary aesthetic
productions in Melanesian cultures are often related to ritual and ceremony and
may be rarely witnessed by persons outside their community.
This book was compiled while I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the
University of Queensland.

Michael and Anna Mel
performPles Namel
Asia Pacifc Triennial 1996, Queensland Art Gallery
Michael is acting as a tour guide, inviting spectators to
apply body decoration and paint to Annas body
Melanesia is a region of hundreds of islands.
Before the term Melanesia was conceived, the region was inhabited
by unique cultural groups each with its own language, history,
knowledge and art practices who lived and made their homes on
these islands. Within those cultures there have always been many
artists men and women. Distinctive designs, patterns, songs,
dances and stories were created and maintained by the artists as part
of elaborate ceremonies and rituals. Some of these processes were
ways of telling stories to entertain and to record history. There were
others that were, for the artists, ways of leaving indelible footprints
or marks beyond their lifetime. Sometimes stories emerged about
the markings; the stories grew to become legends, and some of
these transpired into myths. Inspired by their own experiences and
visions and by their physical, social and spiritual environment, the
artists provided conduits to bring people together in times of joy
and happiness and also during times of loss and grief. Additionally,
the artists, through their various forms and processes, held people
together and gave them a sense of belonging, cultural continuity and
survival. Even more fascinating was the way in which the artists and
their craft made manifest the dreams and visions belonging to the
members of the different cultural groups. Such roles placed the artists
and their art as chief creators of their cultures and as harbingers of
change in society.
One of the aims of this book is to provide brief descriptions of
the ways in which Melanesian artists have reacted and responded
to the challenges posed by change and, at the same time, how they
have embedded their visions in the history and heritage of their
respective countries. What represents Melanesian art today, given
that there is a multiplicity of traditions in the region? Is there such
a thing as modern Melanesian art? Who are the artists? What might
be the subject matter for their art? Melanesian states carry with them
their own history and colonial experiences, and, as they continue
to etch out a place in the world, they experience direct and indirect
interactions with other cultures and modern economies. These
infuences must mean that changes are taken on by Melanesian artists
in their artistic practices from the past and into the present. What are
the extent of these changes and developments in artistic practice?
This book is timely in its exploration of Melanesian artists and their
voices in their communities. Among other things, it provides an
Art and Life in Melanesia
important juncture for many of us in Melanesia and those beyond
with an interest in the region to take stock of what has happened
to Melanesian art. We can also ask ourselves what might be ahead.
How do we chart the waters for the future? This book can help us
respond to some of these questions and, more particularly, to see how
the artists are responding and charting their courses. Our responses
to these questions and the kinds of journeys we might map in terms
of the Melanesian cultural landscape are crucial and I have taken the
liberty in this foreword to raise a number issues and ideas that might
contribute to this process.
Melanesian art past present future
In examining and discussing Melanesian art traditional or
contemporary there are a couple of key questions that need to
be brought to the foreground early. What kind of art might be called
traditional art? And, what is contemporary art in Melanesia? These two
categories represent ostensibly points of departure from the old, and
the start of the new, and have often been used as convenient means to
categorise art. Contrary to this way of situating art activities in terms
of the past and the present, as two separate and distinct categories,
art in Melanesia today builds on the same principles of making art in
the past. What is probably most conspicuous about art in Melanesia
today, in relation to the past, is the fact that contemporary art uses a
wide range of media and also draws on a range of ideas and issues.
Melanesian artists are part of a complex web of infuences and
histories, which often places them in situations of confict and
confrontation. Elsewhere I referred to this as a productive tension, a
tension related to fnding a space for meaning-making:
The voices of [Melanesian artists] carry a tension. This tension
is located within the sense of ambiguity between tradition and
change, between old and new and past and present. These tensions
provide a vibrant and enigmatic cultural location and the artists as
individuals put their case their vision.
Often artists are infuenced by the various encounters and
relationships that have had some impact on their lives. These
encounters include local cultural language and knowledge, various
forms of schooling, Christian infuences, the media, and political
and cultural changes. Artists in Melanesia have composite identities;
they are simultaneously members of families, clans and citizens of
a nation, as well as artists, teachers and parents. They have had to
realise their place and their responsibilities
in all of these contexts. It is inevitable that
this complex personal baggage requires
artists to juggle and juxtapose and negotiate.
The diversity of subjective positions,
social experiences and cultural identities
that infuence Melanesian artists puts into
contention any linear or singular perspective
of Melanesian art as something that is simply
traditional or contemporary.
Stereotypes of Melanesia
Stereotypical images of endless sun-
bleached beaches, sky-blue waters, coconut
palms and natives wearing leis have
been perpetuated to represent Melanesia.
Similarly, art from Melanesia has been
categorised as carvings, totem poles, tapa-
cloth prints, body decorations such as tattoo
and elaborate costumes. The booty gathered
from Melanesians during colonisation
was sent home to the colonisers public
institutions. Now located in institutions for
study and exhibition, these construct and
inform images of a Melanesia located in a
time capsule: as it was then, as it is now and
as it shall be unchanging. Paraphrasing
Clifford and Marcus, Melanesian artists and their art are not objects
to be described, neither are they a unifed corpus of symbols and
meanings that can be defnitively interpreted.
The West has long had a fascination with Melanesia and its
indigenous people by the West, I mean dominant powers that set
up specifc political and cultural practices that regulated and governed
particular representations of Melanesia. And, by indigenous people,
I mean various cultural groups with different political and cultural
practices who offered resistance to these dominant powers. The
Wests fascination and infatuation with other cultures is identifed in
its descriptive language of the exotic, the primitive, the colonised
and the other; convenient modes of deliberating on Melanesia.
Identifed as opposite to and elsewhere from the West, Melanesian
art has been positioned at the margins, categorised and regulated
N. Moripua (Solomon Islands)
Malaita Panpipes, 1998
Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy Solomon Islands Art Gallery
Photograph Susan Cochrane
Art and Life in Melanesia
and normalised as such. Melanesian art
and artists are seen as incapable of change,
immune to external infuences and, indeed,
removed from history. Bernard Narakobis
comment is an apt one on this issue:
Our contemporary artists will pass into
history as our artists, our visionaries, our
prophets in our times. Our art should be
seen and enjoyed and our artists appreciated
for what they are and not for what or whom
they resemble.
The framing of a culture and its
production and maintenance serves
specifc discourses and consequently
supports a process of political and cultural
Melanesia and voices of difference
Social upheaval and shifting cultural
road maps have led to Melanesian cultures
being characterised as impulsive and
unpredictable in changing circumstances.
The situation is made even more precarious with the emergence of
a global economy and the interconnections of the World Wide Web,
which have created a world that is virtually miniaturised. Infuences,
direct and indirect, that are being brought about by technological
innovations via television, CD-ROMs, DVDs, virtual-reality
games, advertising and other multimedia and mass-media related
practices are dazzling and beguiling, especially for many
individuals and communities in Melanesia that might be innocent
in their naivety. Technological innovations make spoken and written
forms of communication appear unwieldy and archaic; a new kind
of literacy is needed in order to read, better organise and manage
the meanings and infuences brought by the new technologies. The
lack of such literacy risks compounding the maintenance of power
and Western ideology within the region as well as the dominance
of Western cultural tendencies. In the struggle for their political
independence, Melanesian leaders, artists and cultural practitioners
found the voices of race and cultural difference as the basis for
resistance and challenge against the dominance of colonisation.
Nanias Maira (Sepik, PNG)
Angela, ND
Acrylic on paper
Private collection
Photograph courtesy Helen Dennett
Melanesia became a unifying frame of reference, maintaining
a kind of them and us approach a within here and an out
there. Perspectives about dominance and subjugation have been
conveniently and consistently based on either/or positions of black
and white. But the issues now facing Melanesian peoples are more
complex than race relationships and struggles between dominant and
marginalised cultures. Race relationships, issues of being black and
arguments of exclusivity cannot be contained or sustained.
Social realities within Melanesian societies are now more
problematic than the conventionally truncated voices of tribalism
and cultural entities. For instance, references are often made to the
comforts of village life, to villages idealised as serene locations
away from the hasty race of town life. But these imaginings of an
elsewhere serve as rhetoric to gloss over the real images of ghettos,
fringe-dwellers and the politically and economically marginalised.
In Melanesian countries there are looming threats of cultural and
tribal disintegration. State machineries advocate greater conformity
largely for the purpose of wealth generation and nation-building.
Issues of cultural difference, race, resistance and struggle have
more to do with the continuing tensions posed in the encounters of
everyday life.
I would suggest
that today there is
a need to move the
frames of reference.
Melanesian artists
are free from the
containment of
Western interpretat-
ions based on their
supposed ageless
past. Melanesian
artists have a
responsibility to
refect and challenge
the inequities that
are emerging in
modern Melanesia.
M e l a n e s i a n
artists are part of
complex webs of
relationships from
Gickmai Kundun (Port Moresby PNG)
Hardships of Women, 1999
Charcoal and oilstick on paper
Private collection
Photograph Susan Cochrane
Art and Life in Melanesia
within their local contexts and beyond. Any relationship is an
expression of position and power and therefore a motile political and
cultural enterprise. This view of the Melanesian artist begins to place
more emphasis on individual artists and it is, indeed,
individual [artists] who, in the routine course of their everyday lives,
are constantly involved in understanding themselves and others,
producing meaningful actions and expressions and interpreting the
meaningful actions and expressions by others.
Any discussion about Melanesian art should be about issues
relating to history, heritage, class, cultural identity, ethnicity, gender
and even sexuality and not built entirely around issues of being black
or white and the loss of tradition in the face of modernisation. There
is the need for further refection and critique of the old discourses.
Our artists, our visionaries, our prophets in our times
Melanesian cultures that were once relatively isolated and self-
contained now face ever-increasing contacts from within Melanesia
and beyond. It is inevitable that people will learn much more
about themselves and others and will be able to better understand
their own culture in terms of its limitations and its possibilities;
this can lead to change or to retention of their own culture. One
popular concept about Melanesian art was that dominant Western
infuences led to the decline and eradication of indigenous culture.
Consequently, Melanesian artists have prided themselves on their
culture and traditions that retain unique and self-contained qualities.
Cultural self-consciousness has been important in the face of the
bombardment of ideas and infuences from the outside. However,
an overemphasis on the local can lead to bigotry and ethnocentrism
a belief that ones own culture is more important than others from
within Melanesia and beyond.
Melanesians are children of their history. To paraphrase Giroux,
being a meaningful Melanesian artist is a form of cultural production
understood as an ideological process through which we experience
ourselves, as well as our relations to others and the world, within
a complex and often contradictory system of representations and

Melanesian artists have a role to play where they can bring about
in other Melanesians an appreciation of a deep sense of connection
with and loyalty to their own places and cultures. They can also
enable Melanesians and others to enter into a better understanding
and appreciation of other cultures. There
is little doubt that this is risky business. As
Bernice Murphy advocated in the Noumea
[Melanesian artists need] to be stimulating,
imaginative, risk-taking. It may arouse social
controversy on occasions, and if so, they
should address this with both courage and
responsibility [Their art] must embrace
the fullness and ambiguity of evolving, often
paradoxical and multiple worlds from which
artists and new art works emerge.
Institutions and individuals in Melanesia
must play an important role in identifying
and supporting new visions that Melanesian
artists bring forth. Articulating and advocating
new visions and directions for Melanesian
artists will not be easy. Often new ideas are
hard to sustain because institutions tend to
support conventional knowledge what is
known and familiar. In order to enunciate Melanesian voices, it is
necessary to begin to look at new and different directions that might
help to chart a course for Melanesians to see the world as individuals
and as members of communities. This is especially critical in acts
of self-consciousness, in which the selection and presentation of art
activities from Melanesia can be a major window into the soul and
spirit of being diverse Islanders bound by a geographic location.
Michael A. Mel (PhD)
University of Goroka,
Papua New Guinea
Thank you to two colleagues, Tambs Yamuna and Yonnel
Yosam, for their comments on a draft of this paper; however, any
faults within it are mine.
Mel, M.A. 2000. Tensions and Visions in Papua New Guinea. The Noumea
Biennale of Contemporary Art. Noumea: ADCK. p17.
Clifford, J & Marcus G.E. 1986. Writing Culture. London: The University
of California Press.
Kanak artist Yvette Bouquet
Photograph David Becker, courtesy ADCK
Art and Life in Melanesia
Narakobi, B. 1990. Transformations in Art and Society. Cochrane, S. and
Stevenson, H. (eds.).Luk Luk Gen! (Look Again!): Contemporary Art from
Papua New Guinea. Townsville: Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. pp 16-21.
Thompson, J.B. 1990. Ideology and Modern Culture. California: Stanford
University Press. p. 21
Giroux, H. 1989. Schooling and Democracy. London:Routledge. p.16
Mel, M.A. 2004. Turn the World Upside Down. Paper presented at South
1: The Gathering. University of Melbourne. July 1-4, 2004. Online http://.
Murphy, B. 2000. Comments at the Noumea Biennale of Contemporary
Art, 2000, and the Noumea Biennale Symposium. 2002. Pacifc Cultures
on the Move A Report on the Symposium, Workshop and Meetings that
took place during the 8
Festival of Pacifc Arts, New Caledonia 2000.
Committee for the Organisation of the Festival of Pacifc Arts, Noumea.
George Sari (Goroka, PNG)
The Mens House, 2004
Acrylics on canvas
Private collection
Photograph Michael Mel
Artists statement: Whatever I paint are subjects of my
cultural heritage that I hope will be preserved for the future
art and life
There is no recognised canon of recent and
contemporary Melanesian art, a culturally cohesive creative
practice refecting a common sense of identity, place and time, yet
there is a great diversity of artistic activities happening throughout
the region. Throughout Melanesia, art forms express characteristic
local cultures in village and urban settings; sometimes they are
created expressly for clan rituals or community celebrations and
ceremonies, sometimes they reach audiences far from the artists
home communities.
The word artis (artist) has gained currency in recent years and is
used widely in the lingua franca, Tok Pisin. In every country there
are many urbanised artis who earn their living from the relatively
new occupation of making and selling images and objects of a non-
traditional nature in the open market. Markets and festivals are
pragmatic and resourceful responses to the minimal facilities of small
island nations, whose artists have limited opportunities to reveal
their creative expression to audiences outside their community, or
to go on tour, or to exhibit their artworks. Living in small, remote
communities does not exclude the possibility for artists to reach the
world, if they desire to do so.
Locating Melanesia
Melanesia was not an indigenous word or concept. The word,
meaning black islands, was derived from Greek, and Melanesia was
initially conceptualised by the French navigator, Dumont dUrville,
as one of the three ethno-linguistic regions of the Pacifc; the others
were named Polynesia (many islands) and Micronesia (tiny
islands). But as the Papua New Guinean statesman and philosopher
Bernard Narokobi acknowledged, The events of the past, however
they began, have a profound impact on human development of the
In the late 1970s and 80s, Melanesian leaders recognised
commonalities between their countries and acknowledged that the
indigenous people of the region had a Melanesian identity as well
as their national and local ones; they developed a code of conduct,
the Melanesian Way, appropriate for contemporary indigenous
societies that had gained, or were gaining, their sovereignty and
Women have also contributed to social issues and
governance at local, provincial and national levels.
Having a
Art and Life + Melanesia
collective identity and unity assisted the leaders of emerging nations
in the international political arena.
Melanesia is recognised as a contiguous ethno-cultural and
geographic region, which includes the island of New Guinea, the
archipelagos of the Torres Strait, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu,
New Caledonia and to some extent Fiji, which borders on Polynesia.
Politically, the countries of Melanesia are Papua New Guinea (an
independent state), West Papua (a province of Indonesia, previously
known as Irian Jaya), the Torres Strait Islands (part of Australia), the
Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji (independent states), and New
Caledonia, which remains tied to France although it gained greater
autonomy in 1998. In 2005, Bougainville gained a new status of
autonomy from Papua New Guinea.
There is a great diversity of physical environments within the
geographical region of Melanesia, as well as in the cultural, social,
economic and political circumstances of the people who inhabit it.
Melanesia is the most linguistically diverse region in the world:
more than 1,000 languages are spoken and there is, accordingly, a
wide diversity of cultural practices.
The Melanesian region is one of great distances, which can
be measured not only physically, but culturally and symbolically.
Throughout the region, people have different vantage points
indigenous and non-indigenous, past and present from which they
observe, discuss and value their respective cultures. Considerable
conceptual distances often exist between indigenous and non-
indigenous cultures and their perceptions of culture and society.
Melanesian identity
Being Melanesian is a collective identity, not used within local
contexts. There are very few Islanders who identify themselves as
Melanesian artists with elements of Melanesian-ness in their
work. These terms are most useful when an individual and their art
migrate out of their local context into the international realm, where
an artist might be the only representative from the region. At other
events, such as regional festivals, Melanesians, Polynesians and
Micronesians are clustered into cultural groupings. In their home
environment, many of todays artists are still absorbed in their local
contexts, the routines of village life, rituals that connect them to the
spiritual and physical worlds, negotiating complex relationships with
kin and making connections in the wider world.
Art and Life in Melanesia
Charley Weiss (New Caledonia)
Model of Kanak village, c. 1950
Private collection
Photograph Susan Cochrane
Any attempt to write about recent and contemporary Melanesian
art fnds one caught in an undisciplined, cross-cultural feld. People
of all cultures express beliefs about themselves and their connections
with present and past generations. In Western culture, it is common
to record and document these beliefs as history, and reviewing
material culture and other forms of creative expression as art
history. Epeli Hauofa, Director of the Centre for Oceanic Arts
and Culture at the University of the South Pacifc in Fiji, suggested
that human story was a more appropriate term to encompass local
histories and genealogies as well as contact history with Western and
indigenous interpretations and representations of it.
The Papua New Guinean historian John Waiko alleged that
Western methods of studying the human stories of Pacifc peoples
imposed a reliance on European written sources as the basis of the
study. This excused the scholar from learning the language of the
people under consideration and perpetuated human stories being
written for historians and not for the people. Waiko explained
how the methodology of history writing might be at odds with
the perceptions of indigenous people. For example, his Binandere
culture traditionally explained its history orally and in display; it did
not separate the past and the present or religious, social, political and
Art and Life + Melanesia
Art and Life in Melanesia
economic themes, and used a thematic rather than a chronological
approach in its explanations.

In many Melanesian languages, no single words exist for the
Western cultural concepts of history and art. Nevertheless, the
celebration of being, communication of identity, expression of
cultural knowledge and cohesion to the land were and still are sung,
orated, performed, designed, sculpted and made into images. Myths,
legends, poetry, songs and incantations as well as objects and images
narrate cultural values, epics, spiritual beliefs, social customs and
the peoples covenant with the land. Waiko described the mourning
customs of Binandere people as their crying and this act transferred
the personality of the deceased into songs or rhythms that were
incorporated into the clans repertoire; rhythms were created for
drum and dance and melodies for solo voice to keep the dead within
the living memory of their kin. Another way of transforming history
into songs and songs into history was crying for a lost stone club,
which then became the story of how it was made, where it came
from, how it was exchanged and the battles and hunting expeditions
of which it was a part.
Contesting Western concepts of art and history with indigenous
ones is a recurring theme in the work of scholar and performance
artist Michael Mel. Using Tok Pisin, Mel identifed three categories
kastom, taim bilong masta and yumi iet to lead Melanesian
people towards a sense of shared culture. He noted that for many
Melanesians introduced to this concept, one of the most popular
categories has been the notion of kastom or pasin bilong ples.
This refers in many ways to a sense of shared culture. The second
category, taim bilong masta, relates to the colonial experiences of
being treated differently by the colonial masters because we were
different in language, behaviour, skin colour and custom. Yumi iet is
the fnal dimension; in Mels words, The new Pacifc is an admixture
of confuences Western infuences combined with those of our
own hamlets and villages produces [sic] a cornucopia that articulates
Pacifc differences within the Pacifc and without.

Art and artists in Melanesia
Describing all current forms of artistic production as contemporary
previous page
Tjibaou Cultural Centre (New Caledonia)
Renzo Pianos contemporary architecture salutes the traditional form of Kanak chiefs houses
Foreground sculptures by Andre Passa
Photograph Susan Cochrane
Art and Life + Melanesia
and the makers as contemporary artists does not match the reality of
many Melanesian art producers, simply because these categories do
not mean anything to them like the skilled carvers in the Solomon
Islands who make non-traditional pieces and sell them to artefact
shops in Honiara.
As well as image- and object-makers, there are
singers and songwriters, like the Kanake bands in New Caledonia,
who generate popular culture in Melanesian countries. They are the
sensors of public opinion and capture its moods; their songs and
images frequently refer to political and social issues affecting their
own and other black societies. Syncretic forms of popular culture are
not infuenced just by Western culture: Bob Marley is a prophet of
the Pacifc; Kanake music has some roots in reggae; Rasta colours
and dreadlocks are prolifc throughout Melanesia.
Certain artists in Melanesia confdently distinguish themselves as
contemporary artists, individuals whose original style and practice
accords with current international concepts of contemporary art and
who participate in major international arts events. The Queensland
Art Gallerys Asia Pacifc Triennials of 1993, 1996 and 1999,
Noumea Biennale of Contemporary Art in 1996, 1998, 2000 and
2002, and one-off major events such as the Sydney Olympics Arts
Festival, have challenged contemporary artists from Melanesia to
engage with others on the world stage. Unfortunately, due to the
lack of cultural funding, support agencies, galleries and promoters
in their countries, leading Melanesian artists know that as well as
making art their activities must encompass management, advocacy
and marketing. Without economic security, todays Melanesian
artists have to be enterprising in order to survive.
Melanesian art in Western culture
There is a canon of Oceanic art in European and American
museums and private collections. Previously designated primitive
art, this includes many highly regarded objects from Melanesian
cultures that have features typical of their region of origin
and demonstrate superior craftsmanship, formal and aesthetic
qualities. Preferably old and rare, they suit the Eurocentric notion
of ethnographic authenticity, which has been confrmed by the art
market, connoisseurs and curators and circulated within this realm of
Western culture. The most famous pieces in the Oceanic art category
are old objects classifed as art because of their connections with
individuals and movements of modern European art. In art museums,
iconic Oceanic art objects are exhibited for their formal and aesthetic
qualities; in most ethnographic museums, they are set in social and
Art and Life in Melanesia
cultural contexts.
In comparison with the status of older masterpieces of Oceanic art
in museum collections,
contemporary art from
Melanesia has made
little headway in the
international art world,
especially in Europe and
America. Eva Raabe,
Curator of Oceania
at the Museum fur
Volkerkunde, Frankfurt-
am-Main, commented
that art museums in
Europe considered
contemporary art naive
or folk art and of little
Contemporary paintings without obvious traits of Pacifc
traditions are not accepted by the public as authentic Pacifc
art works but as soon as they incorporate an ethnographic
element they are not regarded as being contemporary
or modern. In the frst case the art work is not seen as
genuine and therefore as not good enough to be included
in any art show, in the second case the work is classifed
as ethnographic or folk art and is therefore excluded from
modern art exhibitions.
The superimposition of Western tastes and values that limits the
selection, exhibition and critique of the artistic products of Melanesian
people is unsustainable and should be contested. This attitude is not
informed by what Melanesian artists consider important and denies
the ability of artists to create new works, in whatever form they wish,
that refect their spirit and their times and which are valued in their
local cultural context.
This book investigates art and life in Melanesia through a series
of linked essays on different themes. It explores different settings
in which art-making is taking place: in villages, in urban centres
and in international arts events. The scope of this book is wide in
its coverage of current arts practice and the circumstances in which
todays Melanesian artists operate, but it is also limited because the
large range of topics restricts the space devoted to each of them. While
from left to right:
Eric Natuoivi, Daniel Waswas, Paula Boi, Yvette Bouquet
Artists at a workshop at Tjibaou Cultural Centre 1998
Photograph Michel Bonnefs
Art and Life + Melanesia
I have included material from all the countries of Melanesia, PNG
dominates because of the sheer size of its population (approaching fve
million) and the diversity of its cultures. Apart from the Indonesian
province of West Papua, each of PNGs provinces is larger than any
Melanesian nation. For this reason, the themes that include material
from PNG concentrate on one of the regional cultures; for example,
the Trobriand Islands in Chapter 3.
In communities throughout Melanesia, peoples creativity
is constantly inventing and reinterpreting all forms of cultural
expression. There are many points of view expressed and stories
told in the past 50 years or so, but the accentuation is on the vision
and voice of the artists. Each artwork in this book represents a
point of interaction, a pivot for cross-cultural representation and
interpretation. It is intended to encourage dialogue and interaction
between artists and audiences for their art. It would be impossible for
anyone to have a full understanding of cultures other than their own,
but it is possible for a non-indigenous person such as myself to learn
considerably from encounters and exchanges with people who wish
to share the messages of their cultural knowledge and art practice.
Narokobi, 1983, Life and Leadership in Melanesia, p. 20.
For Vanuatu, see Grace Molissa and Elsie Huffer, 1999, Governance in
Vanuatu: In Search of the Nakamal Way. For Papua New Guinea, Carol
Kidu, 2000, A Remarkable Journey. The poet Dw Gorod also serves as
Minister for Culture in New Caledonia. Three women have senior positions
in the frst government of the Autonomous Province of Bougainville, elected
in June 2005.
Hauofa, keynote address at South 1: The Gathering, University of
Melbourne, October 2003.
Waiko, conference paper, Pacifc History Association Conference,
University of the South Pacifc, July 1985.
Mel, 2002, Ples bilong mi: Interfacing Global and Indigenous Knowledge
in Mapping out a Pacifc Vision at Home and Abroad, p. 42.
As discussed in Chapter 9.
No Melanesian artists were included in the 2002 Asia Pacifc Triennial.
Discussing African masterpieces in Musee de lHomme in Paris, Vogel
and NDiyae commented that the founders of this museum were amateurs of
art and, although this was a pre-eminent ethnographic museum, they never
treated the objects as ethnograpic specimens; the museum was secretly an
art museum.
Raabe, 1999, Modernism or Folk Art? The Reception of Pacifc Art in
Europe, p. 21.
Art and Life in Melanesia
art & life
Martin Morububuna (Trobriand Islands, PNG)
Indigenous societies in Melanesia had
long-established social hierarchies, systems of belief and ritual
practices, patterns of trade and ceremonial exchange in taim bipo
kastom refers to indigenous power relations, customs and ways,
and encompasses whatWestern culture calls tradition. Kastom is
a key source of identity and meaning and is important in shaping
culture or to Christianity, but it has also proved to be fexible and
For Torres Strait Islanders, ailan kastom (Island custom) is
used to describe the strong sense of culture shared by Islanders.
TheCommonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSIC)
Act 1989 defnes it as the body of customs, traditions, observances
and beliefs of some or all of the Torres Strait Islanders living in
the Torres Strait area, and includes any such customs, traditions,
or relationships.
Torres Strait commentator Mary Bani criticised
this legal defnition as fawed, because it did not encompass the
signifcant Islander population living on the mainland of Australia,
Kastom bilong ples (local custom)
TheTokPisinphrasekastom bilong ples signifes attachment to a
governments, foreign corporations, churches and aid organisations
The loss or disruption of kastom might be keenly felt, as the
presently felt. The loss of knowledge is believed to have
Art and Life in Melanesia