Michael Mel performing Shoosh! Na Kang Temani te tokor il. Nunga koom talg na ta. (Shoosh! I am chanting a tale. Give me your ears) at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, September 2009. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
INTRODUCTION: A CONTEXT OF ENTANGLED HISTORIES
Since the 19th century, the unique art forms of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have been collected by individuals and institutions and are now on display all over the world in plexiglas cases and on walls for aesthetic focus. Viewers experience their forms as static objects set apart from life. By contrast, in their traditional village contexts, PNG arts were participatory processes embedded in ceremonial performances that included dance, song, and drama. In these village communities where sacred knowledge, clan histories, and cultural values were transmitted orally, storytellers and orators were instrumental in engaging audiences to make the arts conduits of spiritual power, vehicles of social criticism, and embodiments of group identity and vitality.
This integral relationship between art and life in traditional PNG societies was disrupted in the 19th century when colonial rule and missionization put most arts under erasure for belonging to “an age of darkness.” At the same time, Western arts and ways of seeing were introduced through colonial education that gained momentum after World War II. Initially, government and mission schools ignored the arts as irrelevant for furthering modern skills and literacy. But this policy was reversed in the mid 1960’s, following Australia’s decision to expedite Papua New Guinean independence and stimulate a new national culture among people speaking over 700 different languages. To revitalize artistic expression as a source of cultural pride and identity in anticipation of independence in 1975, the PNG government took several actions: in 1968, creative writing was introduced at the new University of PNG; in 1972, a Creative Arts Centre opened in Port Moresby; and in 1974, the National Theatre Company and Raun Raun Travelling Theatre were established to bring song, dance, and drama to provincial audiences. In the 21st century, PNG artists are working in a wide range of media, and inspiration for their work builds on their heritage and history.
This essay focuses on Michael Mel, a performance artist and arts educator whose work engages the new and the different and builds his practice on values and customs from his cultural community. This is a dynamic that characterizes contemporary PNG life and its tensions. Mel’s performance art uses images and objects collected and stored by museums and institutions and local methods of story-telling, singing, and performance to open spaces for silenced voices (on issues, for instance, of race, cultural stereotypes, and cultural and economic colonization), and cajole audiences at home and abroad into sharing histories that provoke insights about their entanglements. He views his work as being much more than celebrating beauty. It is a journey to facilitate connections that encourage people to confront uncomfortable issues and discover insights that will help contribute to a more tolerant world that celebrates difference.1 Mel’s art and educational philosophy have grown from two sources: his own life experiences and his belief in the agency of art to build bridges between people, places, and histories to create an affirmative worldview that nevertheless requires dissent to inspire new visions of humanity. At the core of his performance work is the concept of Mbu Noman, which in his local Melpa language, signifies the quest for spiritual wisdom in confronting and solving problems that disrupt social life and human relationships with the natural environment.2
A performance of Il Iamb Nai? at Queensland
Museum, 2005. (Photo: Tom Gwyn-Jones)
THE TENSIONS OF LIVING BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
Michael Mel was born in 1959 in Wila Village in the Mount Hagen area of Western Highlands Province. In early childhood, he grew up speaking Melpa and was immersed in the customs and events of his cultural community. These included rituals marking birth, marriage, and death, and elaborate cycles of exchange called Moka. At these events, which involved payment of pigs and shells between groups, men and women danced and sang adorned in magnificent decorations. As Mel and others have described,3 self-decoration is a significant aspect of the Melpa-speaking people’s culture and was a medium through which villagers represented their social and spiritual values. But as happened to many PNG children living under colonial rule, Mel’s connections to his village culture and its values were ruptured when he entered the Australian-administered primary school system and was forced to speak, learn, and think from a Western perspective. Mel recalls that the results produced “confusion, alienation, and isolation of young people, who were left with little pride in their own heritage”.4
Mel commenced studies for a PhD in drama and education at Flinders University of South Australia in 1994. While his studies immersed him in the Western canon of theatre and its techniques, they also deepened his commitment to reclaim Melanesian knowledge and practices as the indigenous foundation for arts education and performance in Papua New Guinea. In his PhD thesis (Mbu – A Culturally Meaningful Framework for Teaching, Learning and Performing in Papua New Guinea), he proposed that a holistic education combining cognition and emotion, based on local cultural frameworks, would be the primary strategy underpinning his work as both an artist and a teacher. This perspective informs his current work, which raises questions about culture and development and issues of cultural survival and education through art.
An audience member “constructs the native” (Anna Mel) in Anna and Michael’s performance Ples Namel (Our Place) at Queensland Art Gallery in 1996. (Video stills)5
ENGAGING DIALOGUE THROUGH PERFORMANCE
In prompting his audiences to confront exploitation, question stereotypes, and shift historical frames of reference, Mel combines the skills of Melanesian and Western theatrical traditions to articulate “the voice of difference”. Since his performance/installation pieces are usually associated with international or regional conferences, workshops, or art festivals, they become vehicles bridging local-global issues of humanitarian and/or ecological concern. In 1995, one of his earliest performance workshops, Moni Tok (Money Talks), explored the politics of corruption in Papua New Guinea’s logging industry, where the interests of local land owners in preserving the environment conflicted with the efforts of international logging companies to maximize profits by bribing government officials.
In 1996, Mel staged another provocative performance/installation with his late wife Anna at the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Entitled Ples Namel (Our Place), it invited the audience to “touch a native” and was intended to dislodge “boxes of representations” through which Westerners categorize Pacific peoples as “exotic”, “primitive”, and “native other”. While Anna stood behind a large open picture frame in the outdoor performance space, Mel called loudly to the gathered audience:
Come, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of the native. Located here for all to see, framed and captured. In my language, there is no native. It’s a construction. Framed in this way, we can watch from a distance… We should allow the native to sing, dance, and perform for us… Let us prepare her… Come! Who is first? I’ll guide you over.6
As volunteers came forward and approached the picture frame, Mel instructed them to decorate Anna by painting her face, assembling her feathered headdress, and rubbing her body with oil – an action some found uncomfortable. Thus adorned, Anna danced as Mel chanted and beat the kundu drum. The process was then reversed as another group of volunteers removed the bilas (decorations) and stepped back out of the picture frame. Constructing the “native” became a collaborative process, with volunteers brought forward through indigenous performance strategies to submit their bodies to a real experience. In challenging Western stereotypes of the ‘primitive’ and ‘native’, Ples Namel also subverted frameworks of Western art by making the audience not just spectators, but participants in an event where customary boundaries could be opened for meaningful experiential encounters.
The artist performing Il Iamb Nai? Pombral Molga Kundul Al? (Who is this Person? Black or White?) at the de Young Museum, 2007. (Photo: Tom Hogarty)
In August, 2003, at the Arts and Human Rights conference at the National Museum of Australia, Mel staged Il Lamb Nai? Kundulul Molga Pombral? (Who is this Person? White or Black?). In this poetic performance, Mel used borrowed New Guinean museum artifacts to represent issues of cultural survival and to question the classification of objects and cultures by Western institutions. Given New Guinea’s legacy of colonial imperialism, these objects served as silent witnesses to the power of the political and cultural hegemony that has robbed them of their identity and spirituality. The objects also served as witnesses to history. The stories people carried as part of that history depended on the context where they grew up. The objects in the performance became vehicles to bring to the forefront stories of the history of cultural genocide, cultural denigration, and non-acceptance of other ways. The objects provided the opportunity to reveal personal and collective memory: how these can be located within people, and how they colour the world as seen and made sense of by individuals and communities. The performance, which the artist has reworked at a number of venues, seeks to challenge and redress this situation by opening up avenues for dialogue and reconciliation.
In a performance of Il Iamb Nai?, staged at the de Young Museum, San Francisco in 2007 (which the writer attended), Mel emerged from within a museum crate dressed as “a native” and slowly chanted and danced before magnificent objects selected from the museum’s Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art. Museum staff wearing white lab coats then covered the artifacts as they shouted derogatory stereotypes – “dirty”, “primitive”, “savage”, “uncivilized”, “tea-boy” – at Mel. Retreating into the crate, he reemerged sorrowfully singing the British anthem as he placed derogative labels on each artifact. Suddenly, his abject demeanor changed as he assertively asked, “Why am I wearing these labels? Where are my histories?” Stepping into the audience, he escorted several people to sit by the shrouded artifacts. Museum staff then painted the faces of these participants with traditional designs as Mel spoke of the importance of sharing stories. As he informed his audience, when stories are reframed as “our stories”, it becomes possible to initiate a dialogue where histories of victimization are acknowledged and a path is cleared to move on:
Performing at the de Young has given me an opportunity to disentangle some of the myths and restrictive structures that dominant cultures have put in place to constrict and constrain PNG people and histories… By having the performance achieve engagement, confrontation, and dialogue… I wanted people to look beyond the art to engage with the histories the objects represented – or were made to represent. Yesterday’s performance constructed this engagement… I used that moment of encounter between what is seen and felt to challenge constraining discourses and to open up options for people to rethink where histories are coming from. I believe we need to engage these situations, acknowledge the pain involved, and move on. If we can confront suffering and trauma, they become a means for growing stronger – to say, “We can do better because we now know what history means.”7
For Hailans to Ailans, Michael Mel will create a new performance entitled Shoosh! Na Kang Temani te tokor il. Nunga koom talg na ta. (Shoosh! I am chanting a tale. Give me your ears). Performances will be staged in the UK, the USA, and Canada with borrowed PNG artifacts representing the entangled histories of the stories that will be chanted. In melding and mixing performance techniques from PNG and Western traditions – the hallmark of his art practice – Mel will again make his performance a living participatory process where, through the transformative magic of theater, everybody becomes an artist through Mbu Noman:
Western art is concerned with objects and entities, whereas our (PNG) art is a process. That’s the real translation of power, because as a power process, you are negotiating with people in making things. And if that’s the real power base, it’s where I want to be. Not in a political process, but in a political process manifested through art, which changes people, changes ideas, and introduces new ones.8
- Rosi, Pamela C. 2008. “Michael Mel: Am I Black or White?”. In Seeto, Aaron (curator). News From Islands (exhibition catalogue). Campbelltown, NSW: Campbelltown Arts Centre. [↩]
- Ibid. and:
Rosi, Pamela C. 2007. Michael Mel: Hearing Silenced Voices. ArtAsiaPacific 52 (March/April). [↩]
- Cornish, Richard. 1996. Michael Mel and Anna Mel. In catalogue for The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery.
Mel, Michael. 1997. “Pasin Bilong Bilas”. In Cochrane, Susan. Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea. Sydney: Craftsman House. [↩]
- Rosi, 2007: 60. [↩]
- Video stills from Reframing Papua New Guinea: the Living Art of Michael and Anna Mel, directed by Ian Lang, 2007. Contact Ian Lang to order the film. Ples Namel was created for the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. [↩]
- Mel, Michael. 1999. Encountering Ples namel (Our Place). Australia Art Monthly 121: 19. [↩]
- Rosi, 2007: 44. [↩]
- Michael Mel, quoted in Reframing Papua New Guinea: The Living Art of Michael and Anna Mel, DVD, directed by Ian Lang (Neutral Bay, NSW: Enhance TV, 2007). [↩]
Tags: ancestors, art vs. artifact, biocultural sustainability, challenging stereotypes, climate change, cultural exchange, food, identity, land, language preservation, living objects, oral tradition, reclaimed materials, relationships, schooling, shared memory, teaching, theatre, urban synthesis, Western Highlands