Victoria exhibition review
Carol Marley, Emeritus Curator from Montreal’s McGill University, reviews the exhibition and associated events in Victoria.
Hailans to Ailans, meaning Highlands to Islands in Melanesian Pidgin, was a ground breaking exhibition, as well as a rich intercultural and interactive experience. Following the opening of a companion show in London in autumn 2009, a reception at Alcheringa Gallery, Victoria, showcased yet more work in a variety of media, including sculpture, painting and fibre art. Among the artists attending was Martin Morububuna, printmaker, painter and muralist, whose work is in the National Gallery of Australia. He spoke of how he incorporates traditional stories and motifs into paintings influenced by Cubism- paintings that are strikingly contemporary, and unique.
My favorite part of show was the looped string bags, bilums, commonly used to carry objects, now increasingly created as costumes or artworks. Favorites in the show were the colorful, geometrically patterned, stylish women’s bags. More to my own taste were the more ‘traditional’ bags, often monochromatic in color, composed of natural fibres, beads and possum fur. Although the bilums were displayed on the wall, there was a strong urge to handle them, which would have been a very tactile experience.
For those of us who live in Victoria, the opportunity to experience fine Sepik carving has been available since the early nineties. This show moves beyond earlier exhibitions, displaying named, contemporary Sepik artists’ works alongside sculpture in steel and acrylic by urban Papuan New Guineans. One of the latter group, Tom Deko, collects scraps from dump yards, cutting, shaping, beating, hammering them into shape, then torching, welding, aiming to have his figures look as if they are floating in air. That is much the effect he has achieved. Words but poorly convey the richness of the show, but fortunately, the wood sculpture speaks for itself in the handsome catalog, Hailans to Ailans (2009). In particular, the illustrated essay, Why Sepik Art Deserves Your Attention, by Elaine Monds of Alcheringa Gallery, shows to good effect the magnificent wood carvings, embellished by shells, feathers, air and fibres.
Northwest Coast carver John Marston spoke about his work. In 2006, Marston travelled with Monds and a team to the Sepik River to record a documentary about the carving tradition, Killer Whale and Crocodile. During that trip, he had the opportunity to work with thirty other master carvers. Later, one of these carvers, Teddy Balangu, became an artist in residence at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. He and Marston collaborated on a handsome dugout canoe in the form of a crocodile, on exhibit high above the heads of visitors.
An art exhibition usually includes a vernissage, sometimes a decent catalog, but in this case Hailans and Ailans didn’t end there. Curators Dr. Pamela Rosi, Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, Massachusetts and Dr. Michael Mel, University of Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, stayed in town for several days. One of the memorable events as the week unfolded was a ceremonial welcome by the Coast Salish people and a performance by Michael Mel. Mel combines skills from Melanesian and Western theatrical traditions, thereby involving the audience in the performance. Mel says, ‘My work is all about audience engagement, about creating…a shared memory. My experience is that people have not been able to understand me and my people, so I bring audiences to where I am through art.’ He did nothing less. After the performance, participants from the audience who had been painted up and labeled as ‘dirty, primitive, savage, uncivilized’, escaped to the dressing room to remove the paint before walking the streets of Victoria. Otherwise surely these epithets would have stuck to them.
Hailans to Ailans was part of an ongoing project supported by The Christensen Fund, aiming to ‘back the stewards of biocultural diversity.’ More specifically, the project provides avenues for Papuan-New Guinean artists to exhibit their works in the U.K., Canada and the U.S.A. Here’s to intercultural collaboration, and a special thanks to the University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea, the curators Rosi and Mel, Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery of London and Alcheringa Art Gallery of Victoria. What a show, and what an experience!
Carol Marley, Victoria
Carol Marley is Emeritus Curator, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec