The artist in his home and studio in Port Moresby. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
Essay by Carol E. Mayer
UBC Museum of Anthropology
Martin Morububuna was born in 1957 in the village of Kwebwaga on the island of Kiriwina, the largest of the Trobriand Islands, in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Today he is recognized as an important contemporary artist whose work has been exhibited in museums and galleries in many countries in the Pacific, Asia, and Europe. He sometimes describes his life as ‘chasing a dream’ and this began when his grandfather Gumalema, his mother’s father, gave him a special power called sopi which enabled him to open his mind to a constant flow of ideas and inspiration. This sopi, which translates as “water”, came from supernatural knowledge passed on by his grandfather through magical incantation, then strengthened by following a diet that forbade the eating of those foods that would impair the flow of ideas and inspirations.1 Martin followed this regimen until he was about twenty-five, by which time he felt he was strong enough and the forbidden foods were no longer dangerous. This strength, combined with his faith in Christianity, formed the basis for his firm belief that he had a god-given talent that predestined him to be an artist. It was his ability to create art that effectively reconciled the tension between these potentially oppositional beliefs and positioned him as an important and influential contemporary artist.
His journey has not been easy. There is no doubt that he exhibited a great deal of talent as a small child in the village, where he was encouraged and nurtured by his grandfather.2 This talent developed through his primary and high school years, although with no funding available, it appeared unlikely that he would continue his education. This was resolved by a chance meeting with John Kasaipwalova, leader of a self-help movement called Kabisawali,3 who, recognizing Martin’s talent, secured him a scholarship and took him to Port Moresby, where he entered the Creative Arts Centre to begin his career as a professional artist. At first, he was encumbered by the influence of the Western concepts he had learned at school. His early work was described as “pedantic, uninspired, and realistic”4 by one of his teachers, Georgina Beier, who was a proponent of artists discovering their own style through experimentation rather than formal teaching. Martin was an enthusiastic student and soon his art began to exhibit a look that was distinct enough to be clearly recognizable as his. He participated in some very successful exhibitions and seemed to be set on a steady course, but in 1976, he decided to break away and return to the Trobriands to join John Kasaipwalova in what proved to be a disastrous attempt to start Sopi Arts, an art centre and museum. Mismanagement of government funds was its ultimate downfall. Newly married and broke, Martin returned after one year to Port Moresby, where he applied to go back to art school to complete his studies. There he continued to be inspired by the mythology of the Trobriands and spurred on to create works about the politically unstable situation in the newly independent Papua New Guinea. His domestic life was fraught with difficulties relating to lack of accommodation, workspace, and money. This life was a stark contrast to that lived in the village. He withdrew and took his family back to his village, where he existed as a subsistence farmer and by selling his carvings to tourists. He stayed for two years, during which time he developed a personal way of knowing that brought together beliefs born of his own culture alongside those taught by the Christian church. Representations of both these belief systems became integral to his work. Tokasivila, for example, depicts the story of a couple whose child has died and gone to the island of Tuma, where spirits (balama) metamorphose as unborn infants. The couple asks a magician to fly there and bring back the spirit of their child, shown in the painting with the wings of an angel. The bereaved mother can then become pregnant; within a few months, the child will be reborn.
The composition of Martin’s painting Back from the Garden can be viewed as allegorical, with both a literal meaning and a representative one. On the literal side, he is painting a scene from childhood, when he used to accompany his mother to the gardens. The central figure is shown carrying a full and heavy bilum on her back and a baby sleeping on her shoulder. Her head is leaning to one side, with a look of fatigue on her face as she gently holds the baby’s hand to keep him steady as she strides towards home. Either side of her, in the distance, are two other women also carrying heavy loads. The organization of the mother and child within a triptych and the obvious Christian overtones lend a parable-like allusion to Martin’s message: “I decided to show how mums take most of the responsibility with the gardening and the cleaning and bringing food, firewood, carrying children, making food, and cooking, [and how] men need to help women… play a larger role… [to] help mother and the load she carries everyday.”5
Upon his return to art school he was inspired by the work of Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque, and became interested in the look of cubism as a way to explore new techniques, different perspectives, fragmented imagery, and innovative use of colour. This enabled a move away from realism and towards reductionism: “I use simple lines to talk about bold subjects.” He also encouraged himself to learn from other areas of Papua New Guinea. “If I wanted to move into the world, I needed to know things beyond the Trobriands… By putting together all the influences, including books, and blending everything together, I find my way. And I’m still on a journey. I’m still chasing a dream. Art school opened up the world of European art. I have all the potential to reach the destination I dreamed about.”6 This included his conviction that his paintings are not created just to decorate a house, but also to be exhibited in galleries in as many places as possible, because he believes there would be no purpose to his art if it was for him alone. The meanings and messages embedded in his paintings are intended for all people. “It takes a long time to interpret something from long ago into a contemporary work so that it explains what it means today, to a contemporary lifestyle. It is difficult to bring something that is old into a new place, in a new artistic form so that people can recognize the symbolic forms, but can also see it reflects life today. This is my challenge, and I struggle with this.”7
His struggles with life in the urban environment continued to make life difficult. His work became a mixture of images of mythical and legendary events from his village life and images that symbolized his struggle to make sense of the complexities of his life. Colour began to play an important role in Martin’s work, and he began transferring the traditional colour symbolism of the Trobriands into the medium of contemporary painting. Black, a mourning colour and symbolic of death and illness, sat in opposition to red, the colour of life, celebration, sexuality and sexual activity. Colour was also related to the human course of life: black was nighttime, day was white, and the times in between, dawn and dusk, were red. Newborn babies were white – pure with no experiences – turning red as they started to take their place in life.8 For Martin, green means growth and yellow conveys both joy and shame. The meanings of Martin’s paintings are embedded in his multivalent use of colour: colours are his words and his way of representing emotion. The red of the skirts worn by the young, female Tapioca Dancers tells us this is a celebration. Similar red skirts are donned by widows coming out of mourning to signify they are now free to remarry. The women in the other two paintings relating to dance, Wosigula (Round Dancing) and Gumugweguya (Dancer), are also wearing red skirts.9 The style of dress, including the wearing of red spondylus shell disks on the forehead and armlets on the forearm, all reflect the wearer’s status and rank.
Black is seldom used in Martin’s paintings: he prefers greys and blues to indicate transitions from one state to another. In the painting Namakapu (Legacy of the Dead Son), a mother is placed against a blue background, coming out of mourning for her dead son, whose spirit can be seen in the distance behind her. During mourning, the burden of the dramatic expression of grief falls mostly on the woman, as does the distribution of skirts and bundles during the death ceremony. She is shown carrying a woven basket that would have belonged to her son. Mourning can continue for months. Once it is over, relatives prepare a feast that signals the time to wash away the charcoal that has covered her body during mourning: the time to go back to normal life. In the painting Navaleta (Legacy of the Dead Brother & Daughter), the mourner carries two symbols: a grass skirt- symbol of a young, unmarried girl- and a basket symbolizing her brother. In family matters, the brother is the natural guardian and head of his sister’s household, and of her children.10 This painting is darker than Namakapu, perhaps because her loss is greater and, according to Martin, the carrying of both symbols indicates she is the last relative and the clan will die out: “Colours talk… I hope that people can read what I am saying.”11
By 1984, Martin was developing a visible presence in the capital district as he received some large and important commissions in the form of mural paintings. His images depicted the changing nature of Papua New Guinean life and identity,12 and also showed a sense of optimism and continuity. The recent painting Fever of Milamala: from Planting to Harvest to Farewell of the Spirits is infused with images of the cycle of life. The yams and tapioca are carried to the village after being successfully harvested. The colour green is used to symbolize growth. Here, yellow is a colour of joy and hopefulness. The spirits are invited to the celebrations and can be seen looming large in the spaces above the celebrants. When the festival is over, they are sent back to the spirit island of Tuma. Milamala marks the end and the beginning of the cycle of life. A new child is born, there are happy times and bad times, then a new year starts again.
Bwena Kesisu (Good Living) tells the story of a couple who marry during the Milamala festivities.13 Martin explains, “Families get married during this time because there are lots of yams and pigs and they will live in peace… and be provided with houses and land– the result of hard work by their father or big brother.”14 Martin includes the courtship preceding the Milamala festivities amongst his repertoire of subject matter. His painting Toulatila depicts a young couple who have probably been introduced via a friend of the boy, with some collusion from the girl. The verb ulatile refers to customs associated with assignations and trysts: “This is the experience when you first meet a woman. It is how to touch the body, how to speak, how to catch her attention, how to make love with her, how to take her home for the first time.”15 It concerns Martin that these customs are not being transferred from the village to the city, but he hopes the knowledge is kept alive in paintings such as this.
By the early 1990s, Papua New Guinean contemporary arts were attracting more attention from overseas curators and scholars. Australian art historian Susan Cochrane included Martin’s work in the 1994 exhibition Luk Luk Gen!, considered to be one of “the first fully comprehensive [exhibitions of the] contemporary art of Papua New Guinea to be shown abroad.”16 Since then, his work has been acquired and exhibited by various museums and galleries and can be found in numerous private and corporate collections. However, lack of funding and venues continue to plague contemporary artists working in Papua New Guinea. Martin perseveres because he knows he is meant to be an artist:
“I mean to go on – that’s life. My government does not see the importance of contemporary art…they do not understand how it is important to culture and traditions. They think the older things are more sacred and spiritual and spend money taking care of them. There are students coming out every year but there are no jobs – contemporary artists are only used when they want exhibitions for outsiders… then the artists are thrown out again. We can be good ambassadors for our culture. They think the value of art lies only in the pieces in the museums or traditional work in villages… With or without their help, I will carry on.”17
Overseas governments came to the aid of Papua New Guinea after the 1997 tsunami struck the north coast of the West Sepik, killing 2200 people and leaving thousands more homeless. In Martin’s extraordinarily powerful painting Tsunami, he is not trying to remind people of their loss, but of how countries such as Australia, USA, and Canada provided relief; of how their technologies can help to detect a tsunami and inform people that it is coming, even though “people throughout the world cannot stop it… sometimes it’s a good friend, and other times a great enemy.”18
Beneath the eye of the tsunami, there are armies of aid from many nations: doctors, nurses, engineers, divers, technicians, and soldiers are working together to save the victims of the devastating flood that swept through villages. International aid is symbolized by images that frame those working in the stricken area: a hand reaching down from above with an envelope of money, office towers, a relief aeroplane, a satellite, microwave towers, computers, scientists, and hospital tents where people are recovering. These are juxtaposed with the image of a woman in cultural dress and spirits from the island of Tuma. Martin says, “Let’s put our heads together and share our loads and we will have a better life and a better universe for us to live in.”19 This particular painting is an excellent example of how he engages universal experiences within the framework of his cultural knowledge. It also shows how he accepts new techniques and materials as appropriate modes of expression. He continues to show how the culture of the village and the traditions that he holds dear can influence and bring stability to the sometimes-precarious political and social realities of urban life; how they can perhaps make sense of events that are outside of anybody’s control. Martin may believe he is sometimes chasing a dream, but he is without doubt one of a growing number of Papua New Guinean artists demonstrating a distinctly individualistic identity within the complex cultural aesthetic of their homeland.
- The foods to be avoided included certain yams, fish, and liquids. From Pamela Rosi, personal communication, July 19, 2009. [↩]
- Rosi, Pamela. “Bung Wantaim: The role of the National Arts School in the creation of national culture and identity in Papua New Guinea”. PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, 1994: 396. [↩]
- Within the politically controversial framework of this movement, John Kasaipwalova promoted the development and revitalization of the arts. [↩]
- Rosi, op. cit., 399. [↩]
- Martin is being very literal here because many men do work in the gardens and assume a myriad of responsibilities. From interviews by Dan Lepsoe and Elaine Monds with Martin Morububuna, 2004-2009. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Raabe, Eva CH. “Understanding Pacific identity and individual creativity: two paintings from Papua New Guinea”. Art Monthly Australia, July 1999: 21-23. [↩]
- Bronislaw Malinowski references the Usigola dancing period, which lasts 28 days. The Round Dance is called Mweli. [↩]
- Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Incorporated, 1929: 33. [↩]
- Interview by Lepsoe and Monds, op. cit. [↩]
- His murals can be found at the University of Papua New Guinea, the National Museum, Gordons Market , the Tokarara Catholic Church and the Port Moresby General Hospital. [↩]
- Bwena could also be bwoyna, which translates as “good” or “pleasant”. [↩]
- Interview by Lepsoe and Monds, op. cit. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Quoted in “Final show for ‘Lukluk Gen’ Exhibition”. The Times, Papua New Guinea, September 15, 1994. Earlier exhibits include Contemporary Art of Papua New Guinea, curated by Pamela Rosi and shown at the 800 Gallery at Monmouth University in 1987, and Ting Ting Bilong Mi, curated by Ingrid Heerman, shown at Stuttgart’s Institute fur Auslandsbeziehuger in 1979. [↩]
- Interview by Lepsoe and Monds, op. cit. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
Tags: apprenticeship, biocultural sustainability, challenging stereotypes, Christianity, community, cultural exchange, family, government, identity, inheritance, nation-building, National Art School, Painting, PNG Independence, printmaking, synthetic materials, teaching, Trobriand Islands, urban synthesis, Wood Sculpture