Pacific Intersections and Cross-Currents: Uncharted Histories and Future Trends
Michael A. Mel – University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Keynote Address XI PAA SYMPOSIUM - August 6-9, 2013 – Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC
Introduction The Pacific has a cultural landscape of numerous indigenous cultures. Each cultural group had its own ways of knowing, communicating and history that had been handed down for many generations. Among the many stories and that have become a part of their chronicle, the shifts and changes that were brought on by colonization formed an intense and overwhelming part of their heritage. Very briefly, colonial powers sliced and proclaimed either various portions of or entire islands and their inhabitants and established colonial outposts. Distinctive cultures were forced away from living in pockets of small isolated tribal communities and made to learn and accept new languages and ways of doing things. In order to institutionalize and normalize the colonial ways of life government outposts were set up to bring in systems of governance, law and order, education and the church. Caught between their own ways and those of the colonial rule communities of the Pacific experienced cultural, political and social disorientation, confusion and alienation. Gradually Pacific islanders made efforts to deal with the various circumstances brought on by these changes. Political independence among most Pacific island communities has been established and systems of government put in place; processes of health, education and training instituted; and, local economies have spawned. Today Pacific islanders, as they engage with the bounteous opportunities and challenges presented by the new and different, carry within them a rich kaleidoscope of their heritage. Their languages, customs, stories, myths and mysteries of the ancient compete with the glow, glamor and allure of the ubiquitous neon light – a Pacific landscape that has been and is full of tensions and conflicts. These days the Pacific Islands’ predicament is made even more precarious, especially among our Pacific youth, with the emergence of a global economy and interconnectivity via the World Wide Web. Influences, both direct and indirect brought about by the innovations in technology are dazzling and beguiling. Communication using spoken and written words appears unwieldy and archaic. Our youth and others have lapped up the technology with expediency. What is most needed for all in the Pacific is literacy with the new technology to decipher and manage the meanings. Lacking that, Pacific communities – innocent in their naivety – are being further pounded by the new technologies and inevitably compound the ideological whirlpool that has become a part of them. This is a very brief perspective of the Pacific community. It is provided in order to establish a context for this year’s XI PAA Symposium. Themed ‘Pacific interceptions and crosscurrent: Uncharted histories and future trends’: it is set up for all of us opportunities to look at, discuss and experience Intersections (land-based) and crosscurrents (water and air based) migratory spaces of confluence and exchange. They are spaces where consideration can be given to where we have come from and what directions we might take, where histories, written and unwritten, visual and intangible, reside alongside new possibilities for contemporary cultural practice. They are also uncertain spaces, where creativity and our understandings of identity and place may be strengthened or transformed—and where new narratives can be created. This conference is an opportunity for contemporary artists, cultural leaders, historians, museum and gallery curators, researchers, and collectors to engage in lively and creative dialogues that explore these migratory spaces in a spirit of true enquiry. In presenting this keynote I draw from a variety of arenas – significantly from my sense of being a Papua New Guinean and a Pacific Islander. However, I aim not represent a Papua New Guinean or Pacific viewpoint. My views to be shared here are to large extent reflections over the last couple of days sharing and participating in our Symposium. In a small way I’d like to offer opportunity for natter and dialogue as a member of a world community with a greater interest in and on matters in and about the Pacific. I think that is what our Symposium is: conversation and debate, among and between us – academic institutions, museums, curators, Pacific artists, and interested individuals. We, whether we realise it not, play an important role. This role lies in our capacity to identify and support new visions that Pacific peoples (be they artists or others) bring forth to share with others in the world, and even more so, with the kindred in the Pacific communities located in the Island States. Kastom Bipo Kastom has often been referred to mean the way of life in the past and to the different values, beliefs, songs, dances, legends, myths, rituals and ceremonies of the different societies that dotted the Pacific region. Kastom also provided the sense of a shared culture through history, languages, mythology and ancestry that connected to a tribal community. Colonisers banished the various practises of the various communities. In the eyes of missionaries such activities were evil and heathen. The colonial government perceived them as events/activities that might lead to civil unrest and anarchy. Encountered at different times and under different colonial powers, these traumatic experiences provided for the various communities common bedrock of cultural oppression and annihilation. People were forced to learn, understand and live lives based on the dominant cultures’ ways of knowing. Kastom represented a world that was antithetical to Western civilisation. This antithesis, for Pacific communities, in recent times has become a powerful vehicle that has been … directed by the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of today, beyond self-contempt, resignation and abjuration, some very beautiful and splendid era whose existence rehabilitates us both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others (Fanon 1963: 170). A Pacific communities’ journey into the past then, informed by childhood experience and memory and by imagination, is useful if it will help in any reparation from the trauma of being colonized. But, if the need to talk about and address ideas of and about the past is focused on redemption from colonialism, Fanon provides a useful wake-up call: [Pacific communities] must not … be content with delving into the past of a people in order to find coherent elements which will counteract colonialism’s attempts to falsify and harm…A national culture is not a folk-lore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover a people’s true nature. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people have created itself and keeps itself in existence (Fanon 1963: 188). This is a fitting reminder for Pacific Islanders today. The dominance of Western influences has led the decline and eradication of Pacific languages, knowledge and ways of life. Acts of cultural self-consciousness are important in the face of a bombardment of ideas and influences from the outside. However, an over-emphasis on one’s own is risky. The risks lie in the fact that if ones’ own culture is seen to be more important than those of others, this may lead Pacific Islanders toward cultural bigotry and ethnocentrism. There is also the concern that narcissistic journeys with a deep sense of connection and loyalty to their own places and cultures may keep Pacific Islanders in glass cases – immune to change and armed with a deceptive and fabricated sense of security. There is an additional point; one that is of disquiet and distress, if not kept in check. Pacific islanders have been trained: they have learned; they have been educated in the ways of Western culture and civilization. A net result of these experiences may cause Pacific Islanders to succumb (whether they realize or not) to the dominant regimes’ agenda and perpetuate a particular kind of knowledge that fits into the dominant perspective. Michel de Certeau provides a majestic and sobering reminder: The credibility of a discourse is what first makes believers act in accord with it. To make people believe is to make them act. But by a curious circularity, the ability to make people act – to write and to machine bodies – is precisely what makes people believe (1984:148). The reality Pacific Islanders may think they know is the one that has been framed by dominant regimes. There is this hegemonic relationship between introduced Western knowledge and local ways of knowledge, behaviour and etiquette. Pacific Islanders may well undervalue their local knowledge because the dominant body of knowledge informs and constructs their perceptions and meanings. Some of these constructions have been very dominant and persistent (sometimes to the point of being kitschy and clichéd) in setting the tone and texture of the images of the Pacific. Kastom nau The Pacific communities today are the cosmopolitan admixture of highways and bi-ways. Many Islanders have left homelands in search of work, education, and in some cases as itinerant visitors and workers. But in the leaving they have brought with them an assorted luggage of languages, customs, stories, and myths – in part real and in part imagined. While each one negotiates and forages in the modern cosmopolitan locations they, in the betwixt and between of the private and public spaces, find time and space in being Pacific Islanders. As a Papua New Guinean I can claim my own sense of originality. I was born into a particular community. I learnt the language and acquired particular ways of behaviour and conduct. In time I have had to shift because of education and work commitments and these have meant that I have had to learn to live and work with other people from other communities. In this process I have had to relate to others in different situations. This has meant that I have had to negotiate my positions (values, beliefs, expectations and so on). It is inevitable that the net result of each contact and influence has provided imperceptible changes to my cultural maps. These relations and tensions have and will form a complex potpourri of personal baggage requiring in each Islander an agility to juggle and juxtapose and negotiate. The diverse positions, social experiences and cultural identities that make up the Pacific Islander put into contention and throw into doubt any wish to recognize and reiterate a lineal and singular Pacific Island comprising a unified entity identified as Kastom. Pacific Islander artists, academics, political leaders, business leaders and institutions must consider and make a list of things to do to counter cultural hegemonies. When we countervail these relationships, we need to reassert and place Pacific art, languages, ways of education and even business and political processes alongside those from the Western context. Dominant practices need to be contrasted and challenged with indigenous ways of doing and experiencing art and describing and understanding the world we live in. By way of an example, and possibly in danger of blowing my own trumpet in the context of such an auspicious occasion, at the University of Goroka there are a number of activities that we have begun to put in place, that are in my view small but notable efforts to assert an equilibrium between local knowledge and introduced knowledge. I highlight briefly two of our activities. We, at the University of Goroka, recognize that our communities in times past cared the land in turn it catered for the community. A project focused on cultivating and producing edible and medicinal mushroom have been a part of the Kiovi Community in Lufa, Eastern Highlands Province. The community and university have partnered to utilize local knowledge in ecosystems, mushroom cultivation, and in doing science. With a keen eye on both the local and the introduced ways of doing ‘science’ we aim to bring our students to value to our own ways as much as they embrace and appreciate ‘other’ ways of doing science. Film as a vehicle for sharing age-old traditions of story telling in the Highlands of PNG, was the basis upon which five communities have shared stories. Kommuniti Tok Piksa (KTP) enabled communities to share their stories. The filmic devise has become a tool with which the communities in the highlands their response to and how they are coming to terms with HIV/Aids within their communities. As a strategy this works against popular myths surround HIV/Aids which fuel stigma on HIV/Aids in Highland communities. In the context of this Symposium, and in these innovative times, there is no suggestion that one system of knowledge should throw out the other. There is a need to strike a sensible and realistic balance between Pacific Islander and exogenous ideas. How can the balance be advocated and worked out? How can Pacific artists who maybe placed in such situations or demands choose between the self and the community, between the local and the national, and between the national/regional and the world? What does that mean about the future of local communities, tribal languages, histories, myths, and ways of knowing? There is a strong need to bring both systems to the surface in order to provide for our people experiences that can be emancipatory. Emancipation (a term not in common use these days) here refers to a spirit of freedom from injustices. Many pioneer artists of the Pacific provided a launch pad through their art works to help our communities to find that freedom. The pioneers started intuitively to look at the Pacific context in terms of their own experiences of growing up in village communities along with the various activities that surrounded that life. Family, traditional dancers, costumes and domestic animals were some of the early images. They also connected with the landscape and the flora and fauna of their country that interwove with the stories and legends they had learnt from their families. As the pioneers moved to city life they observed and reflected and began to look at the characters, trends and technology that slowly began to creep in to the social situations that started to surround them. Faced with the harsh realities of town life had a way of making the pioneers wanting to look back at their childhood and the cultural traditions. Faced with contrast and contradiction they created images of lines, shapes and colours that would jettison Western culture and replace it with the local. These would provide a sense of emancipation: freedom from ignorance of our own indigenous ideas and reclamation of our cultural heritage. Complimenting and running alongside the Symposium is ‘Paradise Lost?’ – an exhibition of contemporary Pacific Islander artists. Pax Jakupa, Te Rongo Kirkwood, Michael Timbin, George Nuku, Ralph Regenvanu, David Ambong, Moses Jobo. Rosanna Raymond, Tom Deko, Cathy Kata and Bepi Pius, Eric Natuiovo, Shigeyuki Kihara and Greg Semu alight the spaces of both the UBC Museum of Anthropology and the Satellite Gallery. Curated by the Carol E. Mayer the works of these visionaries – because that is what our artists are – stand alongside their forbearers and through performance, installation, sculpture, fibre art, painting, and photography: ‘…address complex environmental concerns, cultural heritage issues, questions relating to the experiences of migration and diaspora, and the intersection of indigenous belief systems and Western religions. They work at the interface of customary and contemporary practise, providing an alternate, more complex view of the region (Mayer 2013: 2). Kastom Bihain Being part of and articulating a sense of being members of the Pacific community needs to be played out in contexts of the Pacific that are shifting and changing. People come into contact with each other and represent, formulate and construct ideas. Such a view the Pacific begins to place more emphasis on each of us as members and friends of Pacific families and communities. As members we are constantly involved in understanding our actions and those of others, producing meaningful actions and interpreting the actions and expressions by others. The challenges brought on by a climate of change; forced migration to the islands (legal or otherwise), extractive industries including rainforest harvests, commercial fishing, and land sales, these are a compendium of real threats to the well being of our island communities for now and the future. Our political leaders, educated elites, elders, and artists, as visionaries, must chart a course and navigate, again like our forbearers, skilfully and with precision to futures that will enhance and sustain our children. The Pacific of today is inevitably an admixture of confluences: the cutting, tearing and building of ideas and experiences. The selection and choice of what goes and what stays, what feels good and makes sense are really personal choices that are articulated at a social level that is invariably shifting. This is the locale of the new Pacific – Kastom nau where Islanders compete and juggle with globalization and margins of profit and loss. From within these contexts, what kind of Pacific do Pacific Islanders remember? What kind of Pacific do they find themselves in today? What is the Pacific they see for the future? The Eleventh Pacific Arts Association Symposium has, I believe, and perhaps future PAA Symposiums should, provide windows to find responses to all these questions. I would like to see that institutions that advocate and articulate the Pacific – be they academic institutions, museums, curators, gallery directors, or just interested individuals – play an important role in identifying and supporting new visions that Pacific peoples (be they artists or others) may bring forth. This point is also significant for Pacific Islander academics, artists, critics and others to be a part of and participate in PAA discussions and events in order to share and discuss matters together. For as Jean-Marie Tjibaou said: ‘As long as talk remains private, it does now allow the [Pacific] community, the common consciousness, to take a position on its future (ADCK 1998: 50).’ Articulating and advocating new visions and directions for Pacific artists, curators and writers is not an easy journey. It is the meeting point between the cultures, a clash of sorts, and a nexus that I believe will contribute significantly to a contemporary multicultural context. Indeed, reminders of an individual’s own roots and sense of belonging will become clarified and defined in the face of contrasts, contradictions, challenges and shifts. Members of our Pacific communities should be allowed opportunities to look at and talk about other cultures as much as their own. The embodied experiences of exhibition spaces and art, majestic and moving ceremonies, eloquent orations and regard for history, and just plain good friendships in this Symposium have provided much opportunity. Today, these should continue to be a fertile arena for seeding new and different ways of looking at and talking about ideas and issues that affect our Pacific communities. The UBC Museum of Anthropology and its partners: The Musqueam Indian Band, the Pacific People’s Partnership, and The Pacific Islands Museums Association and others too numerous to name here have undermined the prevailing conditions – the tendency to support what is known and familiar. Instead, they have encouraged new and different directions that go beyond the ‘accepted conventions” and taken the risk to be stimulating and imaginative. On this occasion of the Eleventh PAA Symposium, their attitude has not aroused any controversy. Not yet anyway! If it were to, Carol Mayer and her team should address these with both courage and responsibility, as they have done so with the Eleventh PAA Symposium – and so well! Angke, Tenk yu tumas, Tanikiu bada herea, Esso rai, Thank you so much! Thank you to Dr Susan Cochrane for the images for the Power point presentation and to Dr Pamela Rossi for comments on the draft of this paper. Any errors are mine. References Agence de developpement de la culture Kanak (1998). Cibau Cibau: Jean-Marie Tjibaou. ADCK, Noumea, NC. Certeau, Michael de (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: California University Press. Fanon, F. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Ringwood: Penguin (1990 reprint). Mayer, Carol (2013) Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific. Museum of Anthropology (MOA), Vancouver, BC, Canada. Catalogue to accompany the exhibition held at the MOA and at Satellite Gallery, Vancouver, BC.