Printmaking in Papua New Guinea.
Printmaking in Papua New Guinea.
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Australia | Papua New Guinea
Printmaking in Papua New Guinea.
by Melanie Eastburn
This paper is a short introduction to the research I undertook at the National Gallery of Australia as part of the inaugural Gordon Darling Fellowship for the study of Australasian prints. My research relates primarily to the Gallery’s collection of contemporary prints made in Papua New Guinea between 1969 and 1985, years which reflect the country’s most intensive period of printmaking to date. Limited edition printmaking was introduced to Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s and reached its peak of popularity in the 1970s. The practice began to fade in the 1980s and has now virtually disappeared. Created by artists from a diverse range of backgrounds, the prints belong to a specific period of social, political, artistic, literary and educational change in Papua New Guinea.
The Gallery’s print collection includes work by Akis, Mathias Kauage, Jakupa Ako, David Lasisi, Martin Morububuna, Cecil King Wungi, Kambau Namaleu Lamang (known as Kambau) and John Man, as well as by artists less is known about like Gava Aura and K. Marlon. The NGA also has a small group of contemporary drawings, paintings, sculptures and textiles from Papua New Guinea.
During the 1960s Akis worked intermittently as an interpreter and source for a number of anthropologists, drawing in order to communicate designs or ideas that were difficult to describe in pidgin. Georgida Buchbinder, an anthropologist from Columbia University, was taken with his sketches and when they travelled to Port Moresby in January 1969, showed his work to Georgina Beier. Georgina Beier and her academic husband Ulli Beier, had been involved in fostering and promoting contemporary African art, primarily in Nigeria, before relocating to Papua New Guinea in 1967.
Georgina Beier encouraged Akis’ drawing and in the six weeks he spent in Port Moresby, Akis produced more than forty drawings and a number of batiks. The works formed the basis of his first exhibition. The exhibition, held in February 1969, was extraordinary not only because the artist, from Tsembaga Village in the Simbai Valley, Madang Province, had started drawing seriously just weeks before the show opened, but because it was essentially the first exhibition of what may be termed ‘contemporary’ art by a Papua New Guinean artist.
Contemporary or ‘new’ art using imported techniques and materials is largely an urban concern in Papua New Guinea, with work carried out either in dedicated municipal settings, or in specific schools and cultural centres outside of them. The reasons for this are practical as well as cultural – it is in those places that the necessary equipment and materials are most readily available and because, while there are always exceptions, the idea of becoming an ‘artist’ would, until fairly recently, have been extraordinary in PNG.
Following the exhibition, Akis went back to his village and stayed there until 1971. From then, until his death in 1984, his time was divided between subsistence farming in the village and short periods of intensive work in Port Moresby. Although a successful and prolific artist in the capital, he made very few drawings at home.
In November 1969, a group of Akis’ earliest drawings were reproduced in the maiden issue of Kovave: A journal of New Guinea literature. Conceived by Ulli Beier, who lectured in literature at the University of PNG, the periodical also provided exposure for contemporary art. Each issue included illustrations and discussion of an artist’s work as well as artist designed vignettes. Artists whose work was published in Kovave include Kauage, Kambau, John Man and the sculptor Ruki Fame, as well as Marie Aihi and Tiabe. Aihi was a young Roro woman who was living at the Yule Island Catholic Mission when she met Georgina Beier and was encouraged to pursue a career in textile design in Port Moresby. And Tiabe was one of the patients at the Laloki Mental Hospital where Georgina Beier ran art workshops, which included screenprinting.
A number of Highlanders working as labourers in Port Moresby were invited to the opening of Akis’ 1969 exhibition in order that the artist not feel like a spectacle amongst the largely expatriate audience. Kauage was one of them. Inspired by Akis’, Kauage, from Simbu, had a friend take some drawings to Georgina Beier. Unimpressed by the pictures she guessed to have been copied from magazines, she wrote, ‘… they must have looked to the artist tremendously slick, almost identical to the real thing on the overpoweringly prestigious printed page’. Nevertheless, she agreed to meet Kauage, Georgina encouraged Kauage to draw from his imagination, and the two formed an enduring friendship.
Kauage is now PNG’s best-known artist and regularly exhibits internationally. He was a joint winner of the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1987 and in 1997 was awarded an OBE for his services to art. A short time into his artistic career, however, Kauage’s spirits fell and he began drawing heavy, blocky and sometimes limbless figures. Georgina Beier later wrote:
At this stage I introduced the woodcutting technique. His new, heavy, solid shapes were easily adaptable to this technique. (His earlier, flowing line would have been ideal for etching but I did not have the facilities for this.) One reason why I introduced the new technique was that Kauage – who had now given up his job as a cleaner and lived much better on the sale of his drawings – had time on his hands. Kauage wanted to put in a full day’s work, and no artist, however imaginative and prolific, can go on producing new ideas for drawings all day long, every day. The woodcuts allowed him to relax a little. He produced very fine work in this medium, but somehow he could not shake himself out of the depression completely.
Ten woodcuts were printed in small editions featuring creatures and riders and geometric shield patterns. The woodcuts and a number of other important early prints, including screenprints of Akis’ work, as well as Marie Aihi’s prints and textiles, were made at Ulli and Georgina Beier’s Port Moresby home, many in a backyard shed – called the ‘Centre for New Guinea Cultures’ – which was provided by the University of Papua New Guinea. In November 1969 an exhibition of Kauage’s woodcuts, and handcut screenprints by Aihi and Georgina Beier opened at the Centre.
A significant proportion of later PNG prints were made at the National Arts School in Port Moresby. The institution was established in 1972 as the Creative Arts Centre and was expanded and renamed the National Arts School in 1976. The name change was accompanied by an increase in funding and was one of many cultural initiatives that occurred around the time of Papua New Guinea’s Independence, which was declared on 16 September 1975.
Even before the creation of the Creative Arts Centre, however, prints were made at Goroka Teachers College, at the time the only secondary teachers college in PNG, and possibly also at Goroka Technical School. At Idubada Technical College School in Port Moresby vocational courses were taught in design, photomechanical printing and commercial art. In addition, in the 1970s, some woodcuts and screenprints were made at Sogeri Senior High School, near Port Moresby, Kerevat Senior High School, near Rabaul in East New Britain, and at Port Moresby Teachers College.
At the Creative Arts Centre/National Arts School screenprinting predominated with woodcuts, linocuts and monotypes being made occasionally. The techniques taught reflected the available facilities and the skills of the mostly expatriate teachers. Screenprinting was also used to print the invitations, advertising posters and catalogue covers for the regular exhibitions at the Arts School. The exhibitions were well promoted and most art works were available for sale, with 50 per cent of the profits going to the institution to cover the costs of materials. However, Hugh Stevenson, writer, researcher and collector of PNG’s contemporary art pointed out, ‘Later, when profits from school activities went into the government consolidated revenue, the number of exhibitions and the production of prints declined.’
The audience for contemporary art in PNG consisted of expatriates, tourists and the Papua New Guinean elite. In a 1996 discussion about the composition of the audience, Bernard Narokobi, a politician and long-time commentator on Papua New Guinea’s culture, wrote that:
Contemporary Papua New Guineans rarely buy contemporary art. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that few have money to buy works of art. They rarely see it as a possible economic asset, and they tend to regard contemporary art as the intriguing meanderings of an individual artist. Most Papua New Guineans with attachment to tradition associate themselves with their own tribal images. They see new images as belonging to ‘others’.
Students at the Arts School were encouraged to value and explore their cultural heritage. Efforts were made to counter the negative art education many students had experienced previously, including schooling that focused on realistic ‘picture book’ illustrations according to an Australian syllabus. Some students had already participated in courses that incorporated the use of local designs, while others had been exposed to vehement disparagement of their artistic inheritance. In keeping with the thinking of the time, in 1976 the Director Tom Craig wrote of the Creative Arts Centre:
It is hoped that in such an environment, where formal teaching is kept to a minimum; where art is regarded as an activity and an attitude of mind – not a discipline to be learned; where traditional skills mingle with modern technology; there will develop a form of contemporary expression which is genuinely Papua New Guinean.
The work called Face or Spirit mask by Japuka Ako was made around 1980. Jakupa was inspired to take up art when working as a cleaner at Goroka Teacher’s college and encouraged by Craig, went on, following time at the Creative Arts Centre, to become one of PNG’s most successful artists.
Traditional and contemporary artists, including Akis, Kauage and Jakupa were invited to work at the Centre as artists-in-residence, regardless of their qualifications. They were given free accommodation, a living allowance, and all necessary equipment and materials, for as long as the situation was considered beneficial by artists, staff and students.
Students and artists working at the Creative Arts Centre/National Arts School rarely created their own screens or printed work themselves. For many artists, prints were an aside rather than their principal form of expression. The practical aspects of print production were carried out by the graphics teaching staff and by the technicians at the school, particularly Apelis Maniot, Bart Tuat and Kambau, a printmaker in his own right. Martin Morububuna, Kauage, Jakupa and David Lasisi, however, are among the few artists who, at various stages in their careers, dedicated considerable effort to printmaking.
Morububuna, from the Trobriand Islands, began working at the Creative Arts Centre in 1974 when he was seventeen. The style of his early work, which consists mostly of screenprints, lithographs and woodcuts, reflects his training in Trobriand wood carving by his grandfather who was a renowned wood worker. Many of Morububuna’s prints illustrate stories from the Trobriand Islands using stylised motifs and imagery from the region. The outline of Boi, represents a sea hawk, one of the main symbols associated with kula ceremonial exchange, while the central motifs combine elements drawn from Trobriand iconography with the artist’s own symbols.
David Lasisi from New Ireland worked at the Creative Arts Centre and National Arts School from 1975 until 1979. For Lasisi, who had also been a student at Sogeri Senior High School, screenprinting was his chosen medium. His first solo exhibition, and the launch of his book of creative writing with counterpart screenprints, Searching, took place at the National Arts School in 1976. Thirty-two strikingly graphic screenprints were shown.
I won’t read them out but Lasisi’s poems are printed alongside his prints in the Islands in the Sun catalogue. Like Morububuna, many of Lasisi’s prints and stories relate to legends from his birthplace. Saben and The shark are both accompanied by poems about death and sorcery while.
Others, like The Whore on the left and The confused one on the right, reference modern life, popular culture and the turmoil of unrequited love.
Cecil King Wungi’s artistic career began differently from that of many other artists in Papua New Guinea. From Madang Province, he left to work in Port Moresby in 1969. He worked first as a cleaner and then as a laboratory assistant in the Geology Department at the University of Papua New Guinea. In 1976 he entered and won first prize in the annual Post Courier/YWCA art exhibition, the prize was a scholarship to the National Arts School. The exhibition, and others like it, routinely featured the work of amateur expatriate artists and it was something of an anomaly for a Papua New Guinean artist, working in non-traditional media and remaining true to his own distinctive style, to win.
Wungi commenced work at the National Arts School in 1977 and stayed there for a number of years. His photographic screenprints are all printed in a single colour and are densely patterned with an almost psychedelic appearance. The prints depict stylised, fantastic figures with elaborate head dresses, as well as eccentric birds, fish and animals, all involved in intense activity.
By the 1980s the idealism and excitement of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s was fading. The optimism of the years surrounding Independence seemed to have transformed into division and disappointment. Less money was available and many of the expatriates who had been supportive of printmaking, and contemporary art in general, had returned home. The National Arts School became run down and information about artwork being created elsewhere harder to find. In 1989 degree level courses, taught in conjunction with the University of Papua New Guinea, were brought in at the School and in 1990 it was absorbed into the University. Access to facilities was reduced and staff with less than degree qualifications, including Martin Morububuna, lost their positions. Indicative of the frustration of the post-independence period are some of Jakupa’s paintings with pidgin titles that translate for instance as ‘No longer happy with Independence’ and ‘There were great celebrations at independence but now I’m disappointed because I haven’t seen any real progress’.
More recently, in 1998, a 2.1 million kina building complex, funded by the European Union, was handed over to the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University. It was part of an 8.2 million kina EU Development Fund to the University. The complex was named The Beier Creative Arts Haus after Ulli and Georgina Beier in recognition of their work in promoting the contemporary art and culture of Papua New Guinea. The Dean of Creative Arts, Domingo Umayan, was reported in an article in the Independent, a major Papua New Guinea newspaper, as saying: ‘This building will be the place for the artists, writers and performers to fullfil their dreams as professionals in the amazing world of creative arts.’
But the ‘amazing world of creative arts’ has yet to materialise. In August 2000, Barleyde Katit, the Head of the Creative Arts Department at the University and a former textiles student at the Arts School, wrote that the Department had been rationalized due to a shortage of government funds, that most of the creative arts programs and staff had been cut and that very little, if any, art work was being produced there.
This is not to say that all support has disappeared or that no artists from Papua New Guinea make prints anymore – Daniel Waswas from Mendi in the Southern Highlands who had paintings in the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, for instance, has studied printmaking but did so in New Zealand. And textile designer Wendi Choulai continues to work with cloth but does it from Melbourne. In 1996, in association with the exhibition Hamamas Wantaim Bilas: Textile artforms of New Guinea at Cairns Regional Gallery, three young textile designers from PNG undertook residencies at the Print Studio at the Tanks Art Centre in Cairns. Their visit was one of a number of exchanges and residencies that have taken place irregularly between Australia and PNG.
Georgina and Ulli Beier too have continued to support artists they were involved with in Papua New Guinea, and have regularly organised exhibitions for Kauage in Germany, the US and Sydney.
However, at present there is nowhere to exhibit in Port Moresby and artists, including Kauage, are forced to hawk their work outside hotels in the city. Artists now working in Port Moresby, who include Kauage, Oscar Towa, John Siune, Apa Hugo, Gigs Wena, James Kera and Simon Gende, produce paintings, mostly in gouache, as well as some drawings. The materials, facilities and support printmaking requires, combined with the already limited audience for their work, precludes these artists from making prints.
Seen in this light, the lively limited edition prints produced from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s by artists like Akis, Kauage, David Lasisi, Jakupa, Martin Morububuna, Cecil King Wungi and others, mark a distinct and vital period in the history of contemporary art in Papua New Guinea.
© Melanie Eastburn, 2001
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.