The relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is long and complex. Australia governed PNG from 1906 until 1975 and Australian soldiers saw active combat there during both world wars. Even so, many of us know little about the country that lies just north of Queensland. The current exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery is a chance for us to learn more. As gallery director Chris Saines notes in the exhibition catalogue, No.1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016 offers PNG’s “cultural expression, giving us insight into the history of contact, and the ongoing strength of kastom (customary law, religion and government).”
No.1 Neighbour presents a visceral and aesthetic charge of colour, scale and vitality: shields, monumental masks, feathered baskets, paintings and sculpted objects crowd the senses.
The exuberance, the exaggerated treatment of the human body and physical features, and the splicing of cultural tradition with introduced religions (such as Christianity) and urban lifestyles describe, with vibrancy, ongoing change.
Lucas Tangun’s sculpture, Adam and Eve, 2011, is two naked wooden figures wearing masks and traditional headdresses. They have a gourd as the forbidden fruit and a serpent is rising behind the male figure. The Mary tokatokoi headdresses made by the Iatapal Cultural Group in 2011 are also a mix of the old and the newer. Seen first in 2013 at the seventh Asia Pacific Triennial, APT7, these objects fuse the cultural tradition of masks to draw out ancestors and tell old stories, and integrate the powerful Madonna into headdresses that are used in village sing-sing.
The video and performance art by Julia Mage’au Gary integrates her revival of a cultural tradition of female tattoo, with these marks, she suggested in the exhibition catalogue, being “intrinsic to who we are.” Her video Reveal, 2015, uses clothing to describe the struggle for identity and authenticity against external impositions.
New shield works by Eric Bridgeman, who is resident in Brisbane, are made from wheelbarrows. His Kuman Pawa, 2016, sports gloves on the handles and evokes a dark sensibility with use of materials. Bridgeman said in an interview with curator Ruth McDougall for the catalogue, that this series was made “as a memorial for the dead, as well as for living relatives, using designs and techniques acquired through my bloodline”.
The appeal of this exhibition is in its veracity and its melding of exotic cultural traditions. While much of this work has been seen during the Asia Pacific Triennialseries, key commissions for this exhibition, such as the Bit na ta (Source of the Sea) installation draw together video, music, song and story. New commissions and loans offer context for work seen previously, and compel us to learn more about our northern No.1 Neighbour.
No.1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016
Queensland Art Gallery
15 October – 29 January.