Featuring a mesmerising range of works by leading and emerging artists from Papua New Guinea (PNG), ‘Piksa Inap Tok (Pictures Can Talk)’ provides a rare insight into the little known vibrant contemporary arts scene. From the vivid paintings which take a long view of memory and place, to the intricate ink drawings which probe beneath the surface of living entities; from the stoneware ceramics and metal sculptures forged out elemental heat to the cool, calm lines of linocut prints: this exhibition explores the varied contrasting expressions by our nearest neighbours.
‘One of the main ideas behind the exhibition was to help raise awareness of the diversity and dynamism of PNG art and to generate new ideas for expanding artistic, cultural and economic engagements between PNG and Australia,’ says exhibition curator Anna Edmundson.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Papua New Guinea’s contemporary art movement, the dominant narrative of classic customary expressions is challenged by offering a panoptic view of the cultural shifts which have impacted on an ever changing environment. But rather than necessarily invoking nostalgia for simpler, possibly more coherent times, community and global concerns are expressed rather matter-of-factly in a distinctively PNG way.
In the linocut prints of Laben Sakale John, social tension between gender roles and familial relations is explored through bold patterns and strong lines; a ubiquitous characteristic of PNG contemporary art, and is further highlighted in this exhibition by the eye-catching traditional knotted string bags known as bilums which hang along the back wall in all their symmetrical splendor. Gigs Wena’s Tribal Wealth also makes an entrance statement with an interplay of colour and camouflage, drawing heavily upon elements of PNG symbolism; faces painted in bilas tradition, shell money, birds of paradise and a hornbill express a wonder at, and our intrinsic connection with the natural world.
What makes this exhibition compelling is that it provides an overview of PNG’s contemporary art practice, beginning with the masters Timothy Akis, Mathias Kunage and Ako Jakupa who paved the way for the younger artists, working its way to embrace a new generation on the cusp of change and innovation. In a post-conflict society, art is revered a healer. Taloi Havini’s installation of ceramic shield recalls the history and culture of her native battle-scarred Bougainville region. Each shield is an exploration into the geometric clan designs and totems, though collectively they represent cultural unity and autonomy in what still remains today a precarious region.
Simon Gedes, who was mentored by the late preeminent contemporary artist Mathias Kunage, similarly employs colourful patterns and panels with bold outlines in his works inspired by global headlines such as the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, the US disposal of Osama Bin Laden’s body in the Arabian Sea and his cartoon-like portrayal of the 2016 US Presidential Election debate between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Dressed as tribal warriors clutching ornate spears and ceremonial shields, the silhouette figures of Trump and Clinton are indistinguishable in this face-off, and yet this localised representation of the US candidates is no less surreal than the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election. Deliberate or accidental, ‘Ronald Trump’ as the text reads on the star-spangled shield, is the perfect almost clown-like error in a world besieged by fakery and falsehood.
With the exception of a handful of works from the founding fathers of PNG’s contemporary art movement, all works date from the year 2000. Most of the artists have received formal training either at PNG’s National Art School or in Australia, and are excited by the prospect of collaborating in the near future.
‘There’s a lot of scope for facilitating some interesting workshops and artist exchanges both within PNG and with Australia,’ says Edmundson. ‘So hopefully a couple of cultural and artistic exchanges are going to be set in motion over the next few years, facilitated by the Piksa Inap Tok project.’
Julia Mayer is a Canberra-based cultural heritage writer, film critic and educator.
ANU School of Art and Design Gallery
Until 18 October 2019
Australian Capital Territory