No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016.

We are pleased to include this review by University of Queensland BA [Honours] Art History graduate Simon Brigden of a recent exhibition at GOMA. He will be writing more reviews for us in the future.

No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016.

Queensland Art Gallery.

15 October 2016-29 January 2017.

The Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016 seeks to chart how the “shared history” between Papua and Australia has affected the art produced in the former. One of the predominant outcomes of the show is its evidencing of how Australia’s governmental administration of its island neighbour from 1905-1975 markedly impacted the artmaking traditions of the approximately 700 cultures which make up Papua. This influence has also been felt through the actions of an Australian company in the establishing of a highly controversial open cut copper mine on the island of Bougainville. The exhibition hence acts as an after-image which represents visual evidence of the often unidirectional influence Australia has on Papua’s customary cultural practices. Simultaneously, galleries such as the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) have facilitated the exhibiting of Papuan artists in Australia (including this current show). Such acts represent a more equitable cross-cultural exchange that allows for the insertion of Papuan cultural traditions into an Australian context that often exerts transnational power over its island neighbour. 

At the northern end of the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), audiences are welcomed to No. 1 Neighbour by the imposing structure of Kwoma Arts’ Koromb (Spirit House), 2012, which was originally constructed for the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA (2012). To the cultures inhabiting parts of the Upper Sepik area of Papua, the koromb is customarily a place of men’s relaxation and discussion. The ceiling of this structure is here enlarged. It is the same size as, and subsequently effaces, QAG’s ceiling, sheltering audiences as they enter the show. On the tiles which make up this surface are customary designs and figurative animals, such as the cassowary, relating to the artists’ clan totems. These painted forms act as visual connections to a unique cosmology, and the artists use a palette of white, red, yellow, and black paint to depict these images on a brown surface. 

Six large posts, which sit beneath this ceiling, have had humanoid figures carved into them which reference the spirits which inhabit the koromb, further reinforcing the importance of kastom to Papuan cultures and visual art. Kastom is a broad term which defines the artists’ relationships with one another, other community members, other cultures, the environment, and the spiritual world. 

Koromb are often the most striking structures in Upper Sepik villages, and Kwoma Arts’ iteration of this architectural unit is similarly arresting within QAG. As the first work encountered in the show, the audience is inducted into the cultural space of No. 1 Neighbour by walking beneath and around this spiritually and stylistically complex space. Kastom designs become the gateway into an exhibition which evidences how such customary practices have often been affected by Papua’s geographical neighbour. 

Perhaps one of the most prevalent outcomes of this shared history is the waning of customary traditions as a result of Australia’s administration and the imposing of new laws upon the peoples and cultures of Papua. In collaboration with members of his family, who practice under the name of Yal Ton, Brisbane-based Papuan artist Eric Bridgeman investigates how male members of the Yuri clan of Chimbu Province have been revitalising masculine rites of combat and initiation. Such practices were outlawed in the 1940s by the Australian administration and have re-emerged since Papua’s independence in 1975. 

The installation Yalkuna (Mate), 2016, spans an entire thirty metre wall in the Watermall Gallery proceeding the koromb house. In Bridgeman’s multimedia installation, he paints this wall and decorates wheelbarrows with designs inspired by those found on traditional shields. Replacing the Koromb’s constrained colour scheme is a palette including pink, orange, turquoise and other similarly vibrant colours. The wheelbarrows are also adorned with objects such as boxing gloves, gardening gloves, socks, shoes, and various other materials. The wheelbarrows sit beneath photographs which are divided into two sections. In one, men wear traditional Papuan warrior dress and stand outside wooden huts. In the other, men wear more contemporary clothing in, generally, more contemporary contexts like a gymnasium. 

Separating these two divergent representations of Papuan masculinity are a series of videos. One records a simulated battle between two clans. This pays homage to the forms of warfare, simulated or real, that were used to settle disputes prior to Australia’s administration of its island neighbour. Through the lens of a shaky handheld camera, reminiscent of a home video, men are seen running at one another, armed with shields and weapons such as spears. The viewer is at first enticed to believe they are watching a real melee, the resolving of a dispute between the two groups. It is only when the men disengage, run back to set starting positions, and are seen to be gleefully smiling that the ruse is exposed. They repeat this fiction multiple times. 

If the interweaving practices of kastom were established by Kwoma Arts’ Koromb, then Bridgeman’s work represents a refiguring of these ideals in the aftermath of a particular period of a transnational shared history. The Koromb is an installation that usurps the gallery space, as the viewer enters into a cultural space that is no longer defined by the white walls (or perhaps ceiling) of the modern museum. Bridgeman’s collaborative work repaints the white walls of the gallery in bright shield designs, reclaiming this surface as one of contemporary Papuan culture. The work’s representation of the revitalising of banned Papuan practices, exhibited within the country which previously disrupted them, presents a more confronting aftermath of an inequitable cross-cultural exchange. Additionally, both this work and the Koromb represent exclusively male components of Papuan culture. 

Hakö artist Taloi Havini’s Beroana (Shell Money), 2015-16, again clearly illustrates this facet of the shared history. She recreates in porcelain, earthenware, and stoneware the traditional currency, shell money, used in the Hakö region of Buka Island. Havini meticulously crafts small, individual rings in either white, grey, or brown. She groups the rings together by colour and hangs them on a spiralling, steel wire. This is a visual protest critiquing the highly controversial open cut copper mine on the Papuan island of Bougainville. The mine began operation in the 1970s, and was partly owned by Australian company Rio Tinto.1 At stake in Havini’s work is the choice between the globalised currency represented by the exporting of copper, or the culturally integral economic exchange represented by beroana. Through her work, evidence mounts that Australia serves as a point of differentiation and contestation within many of Papua’s cultures. 

What is not addressed so much in the show, or in the small selection of works that are discussed here, is how Papuan culture has, if at all, influenced Australian culture, aside from works such as Kwoma Arts’ Koromb or Wendi Choulai’s dance performances being part of QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennials. Such a two-way exchange would constitute a more equitable shared history. Instead, the artworks of No. 1 Neighbour are contemporary modes of visual expression which dismantle the cultural limits placed on Papuan visual expression by Australia. The stylistic diversity of the works in the show are tied together by their geographic point of origin. The national border which links these works together acts as a tool of independence which refutes the borders placed on Papuan cultures by external influences, especially by its number one neighbour. 

1 For more on a series of work by Havini which critiques the impact of this mine see Ruth McDougall, “Highlight: Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller ‘Blood Generation,’” Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, last modified June 16, 2015, accessed November 11, 2016, -havini-and-stuart-miller-blood-generation-2009/.