Birth of a Tom Deko figure. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
Hailans to Ailans (meaning “Highlands to Islands” in Tok Pisin) is a two-part international exhibition presenting contemporary artists from Papua New Guinea (PNG). These artists work in a variety of media, including painting, metal sculpture, wood sculpture, weaving, and performance. Their work engages the vibrant cultural interplay transforming PNG society as it rapidly modernizes while seeking to preserve its ancient Melanesian heritage. This period of rapid change has been described as moving from the stone age to the space age in a lifetime. For contemporary Papua New Guinean artists, it has meant struggling to retain their indigenous cultural heritage while being challenged by the forces of modernization and colonial rule, confronting stereotypes of their cultures and knowledge as primitive and timeless.
The exhibition is in two parts:
SEPTEMBER 16 – OCTOBER 17 | Opening reception: Wednesday, Sept. 16, 6:30-8:30pm
Rebecca Hossack Gallery
2a Conway Street, Fitzroy Square, London, UK
NOVEMBER 5 – NOVEMBER 26 | Opening reception: Thursday, Nov. 5, 7:00-9:00pm
665 Fort Street, Victoria, Canada
Associated events in the UK, USA, and Canada, including artist’s talks, residencies, performances, and film screenings, are listed here.
Cultural exchange is an important part of Hailans to Ailans. To that end, two preeminent Coast Salish artists, lessLIE and John Marston, will join the Papua New Guinean artists for this exhibition, continuing a cultural exchange begun in 2006 between the Iatmul of the Sepik River, PNG, and the Coast Salish of the Northwest Coast of Canada. Both peoples share proud artistic traditions and painful histories of political and cultural suppression as well as beliefs in the power of art to maintain indigenous cultural traditions and identity. Rosanna Raymond, a performance/installation artist, fashion designer, and curator of Samoan descent, will join the group in London for an installation of bilumwear as living sculpture, further enriching transpacific collaboration.
Although Western collectors and museums value the traditional arts of Papua New Guinea as amongst the finest of the tribal world, contemporary PNG art, with its new styles, subjects, and materials, has not received similar acclaim. Syncretic features observed in contemporary PNG arts have been seen in some contexts to be Western influences that weaken indigenous cultural meanings and identity. PNG art institutions, including the former National Arts School, have been criticized for this reason, stimulating efforts to restructure PNG art education from an indigenous perspective of teaching and learning. At the same time, in asserting the importance of innovation, artists use syncretism to image their multifaceted identities, broaden their repertoires, connect with wider audiences, and stimulate dialogue about tradition and change.
The five PNG artists travelling to our exhibition venues are internationally recognized and represent major regions of Papua New Guinea. Tom Deko (Eastern Highlands) welds sculpture from recycled metal of subjects from village and urban life. Cathy Kata (Western Highlands) loops bilums in traditional and modern fibres and patterns; her new bilumwear also mixes media. Michael Mel (Western Highlands) uses theatre to share language, knowledge, and ideas from his Melpa community and others to confront Western stereotypes of Papua New Guineans as “primitive natives”, and to invite shared histories. Martin Morububuna (Trobriand Islands) creates paintings inspired by Trobriand myths and ceremonies, but also images modern society and its conflicts. Claytus Yambon (Middle Sepik) carves narrative works that illustrate traditional myths as well as works that reflect everyday village life.
The artists in this show are deeply concerned with the loss of traditional customs and lifeways as PNG embraces modernization. They are committed to cultural revitalization informed by local knowledge, values, and identity. Hailans to Ailans seeks a nuanced understanding of their art. Challenging categorization of indigenous arts as “traditional” or “contemporary”, it advocates a continuum between the two, since art production is dynamic, not timeless.
From its outset, Hailans to Ailans has expanded as a collaborative endeavor. The curators have been gratified by widening networks to further support and promote contemporary PNG art in today’s globalizing art world.
Pamela Rosi (Co-curator with Michael Mel)