Contemporary printmaking in Papua New Guinea.

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Contemporary printmaking in Papua New Guinea.


Waswas, Daniel.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



Publication date



Conference paper



Countries of context

Australia | Papua New Guinea

Full text

By Daniel Waswas

This paper is a personal overview of printmaking in Papua New Guinea, from a fine artist specialising in painting and print. I will cover the early development of printmaking in PNG to give a sense of direction or the beginning of contemporary art in Papua New Guinea as most writers, art historians, and facilitators have come to conclude.

In addition, the state of printmaking today in Papua New Guinea, especially at the University of Papua New Guinea (Art Department) and how this can be compared to the pioneers of modern day printmaking. I will express on my insight into printmaking in PNG in general and how we can revitalise this unique vibrant form of art making in PNG. Having established the scenario, I will introduce my small group called GalleryPNG along with its vision and objectives.

The beginning of printmaking
The early 1960s is referred to as the birth of contemporary art in Papua New Guinea. Printmaking is very much closely or indeed associated to this era, the introduction of new art forms in PNG’s history of contemporary or new art development.

Artists like Akis, Mathias Kauage, Jakupa Ako, David Lasisi and Martin Morububuna to name a few have brought about the understanding of this fascinating style of art making to reality in PNG. In recognition, this process originated from a vision and initiative by Ulli and Georgina Beier. In all circumstances in life, man without a vision shall perish according, “to the bible’’. We are here today embracing the art of printmaking and in particular the birth of printmaking in PNG from my perspective. I acknowledge the Beiers for having that initiative in providing that venue and support to the artists.

This group of early artists and their art continue to intrigue me and I have come to appreciate and understand their journey in embracing this new concept of art making. This is very much evident today from the amount of work each artist produced within a short period of time. This group of pioneers worked around the period when PNG was on the cross-roads to self governance and post independence. A period in which social issues and political instability was a concern. These matters did not distract their creative process but only complimented their research into subject matters of representation in their approach in recording their ever changing environment.

State of Printmaking in Papua New Guinea (Art School, UPNG)
The art of printmaking has virtually lost its place in Papua New Guinea. The once vibrant limited edition prints of the 1960s to the mid 1980s is now a distant memory which will symbolise a period in which PNG first embraced contemporary art.

This is not to say contemporary art in PNG has lost its identity. In the other disciplines of art making namely, painting, sculpture, pottery and crafts like weaving, designs and free hand ‘t’ shirt printing is striving at a steady pace. All practicing artists both trained and untrained are experimenting new mediums of paintings using whatever material that is readily available and affordable.

One of the surviving printmakers, Martin Morububuna now mostly resorts to painting and drawing. He remarked recently during a discussion and I quote “painting and drawing is easy”. He went on to say, materials is a contributing factor to the demise of prints as it is specific and requires delicate attention whilst on the other hand, work space is not an issue with painting and drawing. When asked about printmaking, he hesitantly and softly remarked, if only a venue was made available to revive the old days.

With this statement, I concluded that he surely missed the days when experimenting with prints to express their inner feelings and representing their culture visually and meaningfully. Over the past three years upon my return from studies in New Zealand, Gickmai Kundun, Papua New Guinea’s most prominent sculptor and senior artist along with Martin have expressed to return to the Art School and help revive the Beier vision.

However, at present this is not possible as the University is going through a rationalised restructure program due to limited Government funding. Not to mention, Martin and Gickmai do not meet the academic requirement according to the western form of introduced training. Although they do posses the traditional values and skills that qualifies them to teach in the context of PNG culture that were passed on from generation to generation. Both men have the credentials and experience in understanding the western form of interpreting art whilst establishing balance with their heritage to fit into today’s trend of art movement. I think our education system should consider offering mentorship to artists of this calibre to share and pass on their wealth of experience for the benefit of the young students. This will prepare them and enable them to increase their level of awareness on their heritage and will have a comprehensive understanding and balance with the many cultures in PNG along with the introduced cultures of the west.

In addition, the Art Department is a strand within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences thus creating a difficult situation for artists to express their views and been represented fairly within the university. This has led to Art major students streaming to other courses instead of their first choice of interest. Adding to the dilemma is the budget cut within the university and art courses are always at the receiving end. Materials are hard to come by resulting in students resorting to scrap and used papers for printmaking. This has had severe consequences resulting in the quality of work suffering and it reflects the image of print making in PNG today.

To compare the young print makers with the pioneers is not an easy task. Both groups represent a different era in life where people evolve and dwell according to their environment. Andrew Strathern, American Anthropologist has put it, the people of Papua New Guinea in particular the Huli’s of Tari, Southern Highlands Province paint their face bright yellow to represent the sun and the red markings symbolises the links with their gods. The plumes of birds of paradise headdress compliment their beauty and appearance which are obtained from the birds in their surroundings.

This is a form of connection whereby we all living organisms relate to, adapt and imitate to discover our identity ever since civilisation began. I have come to understand and learn how we artists interpret life and contribute in our own way to record changes that are inevitable. In the same instances, values of culture have been distorted or replaced by the new way of life.

The pioneers have in their own way contributed to the cause of change and in most of their work it represented their background and social issues that were slowly entering the fabric of society in PNG in the early 1970s. The works titled “the whore, the confused one” and the beggar” (painting by Tabau Silau – from Madang to name a few where results of social change. David Lasisi and Martin Morububuna resorted to their culture for inspiration and often use their traditional art forms to create modern prints.

To share my experience from been with the students over the last three years. I have observed these young printmakers rely on images in magazines, photographs in books and any other printed material for reference to create their art. The use of motifs, designs and scared images from some of the provinces in PNG are very much evident in their work. However, there is not much consideration or acknowledgement on the art forms in use and moreover the theme of interpretation is limited. The aesthetic qualities of the many cultures of PNG is broadly visualised today without really grasping the essence of this unique cultures.

Having faced with this scenario, I have invited Gickmai to share his experiences to encourage the students to be aware of their identity and to understand the many art forms. Whilst making an attempt to know about the diverse cultures within PNG before incorporating the many different motifs in their artworks. This will take some time but I believe with a vision and the determination we can achieve to educate the young printmakers of tomorrow.

Personal Insight
From the experiences I had over the years as an art student, practicing artist and an art facilitator, I have come to learn one crucial fundamental thing in life. We must never rely on someone to do if for us but always have faith in our ability and aim to achieve it. We, the human race since God created life have a tendency to blame someone for our wrong doing or choice in life. As it is written, according to the scripture, “ Adam blamed Eve for taking a bite on the apple which was forbidden. Adam had the choice to say no but instead chose to eat despite his consciousness. This approach is very much evident in PNG and we have a tendency to expect someone to take care of our responsibilities. Papua New Guineans prefer the easy way instead of putting the hard yards to reap the rewards later.

I believe printmaking can be revitalised in PNG to that level it reached in the early 1970s. We all practitioners, historians, critics, curators, academics and art lovers can share ideas to assist where there is a need in our region. Artists in Papua New Guinea have that desire to explore the boundaries of printmaking in experimenting new techniques and medium. We still have a long way to go before our desire is fulfilled.
However, the most important asset PNG has is its people with many languages, diverse cultures leading from the highlands to the coast and it is still one of the last frontiers on the planet. Some parts of the country are still untouched and yet to be fully explored to realise its true potential. When our identity is solely rooted in our culture, art making will still remain. Our Art is our pride, our roots and our life and we aim to work towards fulling creating new art.

GalleryPNG is a small Art organisation formed at the beginning of 2003. It is a non profit group designed to cater for the needs of the contemporary artists in Papua New Guinea. I took the initiative to establish this group to basically act as a vessel for both the trained and untrained artists to utilise the place in displaying their artworks and help promoting their art through the internet and media awareness. To also improve and educate their approach of art making, presentation, use of subject matters that are sensitive to some parts of PNG, copyright issues or intellectual property matters whilst preparing them to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

The aim of GalleryPNG is to establish a suitable environment or location for mostly the unfortunate or naïve artists to work in as a group and help one another to interact and share ideas. The venue can act as a stepping stone for some of the artists to establish themselves and passing on the concept to help the future artists.

Our long term goal is to see GalleryPNG as an open learning centre for people with interest in art and qualification is not relevant as I believe talent is a gift and having a vision is earned from faith. To also help establish network with other organisations in the pacific to exchange ideas and bringing in artists from other countries for residency programs and participating in art festivals.

To support this course, Gickmai has established a small art group working with unemployed youths from his community of 9 mile, a settlement out of the town, Port Moresby. He has started informal classes in metal sculpture and the amount of work that is coming out from this group is pure in talent. Since the establishment the group have exhibited their artworks mainly at the regular Ela beach craft market and the most recent and successful exhibition at the yacht club, Port Moresby.

To conclude, art is passed on from generation to generation and Papua New Guineans learn from trial and error, imitation and practicing in group situation. This process of learning has been applied to the art of fishing, hunting, gardening, carving or initiation ceremonies since the people of Papua New Guinea lived on this planet. Our cultures are derived from family structures and so to our way of learning unlike the introduced concept of learning now been embraced and practiced in PNG today.

© Daniel Waswas, 2004
Paper presented at The Fifth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004