Over the last fifty years, modern and contemporary art in Oceania has emerged, not just as one movement but many. Across the Pacific, new expressions of customary practice, from weaving to tattooing, have diverse local lives, while increasingly accomplished artists in installation, digital media, performance, adornment, photography and painting have gained prominence and international recognition. But this history has been notably discontinuous and uneven.
In the late 1960s, Ulli and Georgina Beier moved from Nigeria to Port Moresby and were catalysts for a new culture of decolonisation at the University of Papua New Guinea. They stimulated and supported theatre, poetry and publishing and visual art. In New Zealand, a small group of Maori modernists became active in the 1960s, but it was at the end of the 1980s that a new wave of contemporary Maori and Pacific Islander art emerged, part of a dynamic movement that embraced fashion, theatre, music and cinema.
From the early 1990s, the Pacific Sisters and artists such as Brett Graham, Jacqueline Fraser, Michel Tuffery, John Pule, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana and Jim Vivieaere were among those who created contemporary Maori and Pacific visual idioms and identities while challenging colonial narratives and Western images of the Pacific. The time had come for work from within the region to offer a new vision of Oceania, and it is not surprising that these artists feature prominently in museum collections, survey exhibitions and presentations of contemporary art, including regular iterations of the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.
Notably, over this period, support for the arts within Papua New Guinea and within other Melanesian nations had diminished. Pacific art became Auckland‑centred, perhaps understandably given the vibrance of the diaspora, but in a way that is also inevitably unrepresentative of the extraordinary historic cultural diversity of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and of the francophone Pacific. Hence the art of the new Oceania—extraordinarily varied and impressive as it has been—has not told the stories of the epoch of decolonisation across New Guinea, divided since the 1960s between Indonesian provinces, and at first Australian‑administered and in due course independent Papua New Guinea.
The vast landmass and the many offshore islands and archipelagos, extending to the north and east, made up what is—in terms of its cultural and civilisational diversity—truly a Melanesian continent. Many hundreds of languages were spoken, a bewildering variety of ritual traditions practiced, across habitats ranging from densely inhabited high mountain valleys to saltwater river systems, swamps and estuaries. Like those of the epoch of decolonisation in Africa, national borders were more or less arbitrary impositions. They would inevitably engender conflict.
On Bougainville, which had strong cultural affiliations with the neighbouring Solomon Islands, the discovery of copper in the 1960s led to the establishment of the Panguna mine, which started to produce in 1972 and was for a period the largest open cut mine in the world. While the PNG government was a 20 per cent shareholder, and the revenue represented almost half of the country’s export income, distribution to landholders was limited and uneven. Rivers were polluted by mine tailings, the presence of the plant and large numbers of workers from elsewhere were socially disruptive, and in due course growing local discontent led to conflict from 1988 on.
A decade of war resulted in an unknown number of deaths: estimates range between 1,000 and 2,000 people killed in actual combat, with 15–20,000 dying as a direct or indirect result of the conflict, because of a blockade on medical supplies as well as other factors. The likelihood is that many more people died over ten years of violence than did over the thirty years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The disparity in international public awareness is telling.
Taloi Havini was born in Arawa in 1981. Her father was the political leader Moses Havini, for a period Speaker in the Provincial Assembly; after the war began, the family sought refuge in Australia from 1990, and Havini studied at the Canberra School of Art. Since the early 2000s, she has produced an impressive and diverse body of work, that has ranged over Melanesian colonial history, human rights, environmental issues and material culture. While museum collections have not been at the core of Havini’s practice, the artist has produced work that emulates customary artefacts from her region.
KapKaps (2015) consisted of a series of porcelain disks bearing iridescent gold and copper glazes which resembled the traditional head ornaments, made from clamshell with intricately cut openwork turtle shell pieces, astonishing for their fine radial geometry. There are numerous kapkaps in museum collections, especially in Germany, which colonised what are still known as the Bismarck Islands—New Britain and New Ireland—as well as parts of the Solomons and their vicinity in the late nineteenth century. The full title of Havini’s work, KapKaps from the Mysterious Isles of Melanesia, refers to the age of empire and the fact that even today these regions carry the romance of the unknown, of mystery—although not for their inhabitants, who know the terrain and water intimately and have done for generations.
Some of Havini’s KapKaps have been displayed in an antique cabinet, reminiscent more or a private collection than a museum setting. This could be an index of appropriation, but the gesture, and the use of the precious gold renders this a more complex re‑enactment of value. For the people of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, as acknowledged by Havini, these are “inaccessible sacred treasures”—not many have the chance to visit European museum stores. Her presentation of these material translations in historic display furniture offers a restoration of “cultural memory.”
As artefact genre, kapkaps figure in a narrative of sanctity, cultural value, loss, accessibility and re-connection in intriguing ways. While kapkaps were made, worn and valued within particular communities, the form is not one that was distinctive to a particular cultural group. The works were made across a wide region—throughout the Bismarck Islands and in various forms in parts of the modern nation of the Solomon Islands—a region distinguished during the precolonial and colonial periods by much trade and interaction. They are not works that bear specific customary identities; rather, they speak to cultural affinities and a long history of interaction and relatedness. I would extrapolate: they are not artefacts with nationalities, but artefacts that speak beyond the ascription of nationality and sovereignty that has worked so relentlessly and worked so much damage over colonial and postcolonial periods.
Beroana (shell money) (2015–17) similarly engages the translation through new materials of a customary genre made, in varied particular expressions, throughout a wide region in island Melanesia. Again, long strings of finely ground shell disks are abundant in museum collections, particularly in Germany. But in some areas shell money is still made today. Those who attended the most recent Festival of Pacific Arts in Guam in May 2016 had the opportunity to meet Langalanga women from Malaita, who demonstrated the manufacture of the customary genre, which is still used extensively for customary purposes, also in more casual trading, in that part of the Solomon Islands.
In travel literature, shell money is often referred to jocularly, and trivialised as a cumbersome but straightforward premodern equivalent of cash. But the value of the media is distinctive and was associated historically and culturally not with routine buying and selling but with the creation and transformation of social relationships, with kinship, alliance and law. Writing on the Kanak in New Caledonia, the insightful French missionary–ethnologist Maurice Leenhardt outlined in his Notes d’ethnologie Néo-Calédonienne (1930) that among the uses of “monnaie” there, gifts and payments associated with birth, marriage, customary feasts, death (when gifts presented from one branch of a family to another at birth would be returned), mourning, diplomatic missions, peace, payments to seek refuge at a time of conflict, payments made by or on behalf of a prisoner of war, seeking his or her adoption by a group, the purchase of someone’s silence, a reparation for an injury, and an offering for the acquisition of magic.
If what are most commonly cited are gifts around marriage, the core theme is the creation and recreation of the most fundamental of social relationships, as marriage in Melanesia did not just bring individuals together, it reactivated relations between lineages (matrilineages in Bougainville specifically). Shell money was never primarily an archaic currency, but a materialisation of the value of connections between people, families and clans. The delicacy, hue, tangibility, beauty and durability of finely ground shell exemplified the value that the relationships themselves held. Shell money moreover constantly represented the transformation of individual effort—the work of women grinding individual shells—into collective effect. Strings of shells, and bunches of strings constitute gifts between collectivities, between groups of people, that marked their connectedness.
Havini’s Beroana reproduces individual ground shells out of stoneware, earthenware and porcelain. Most arrestingly, the work constitutes out of these separate pieces not strings or necklaces that might be offered or suspended for display, but a wide, wire‑mounted cone‑shaped spiral, an installation several metres high and wide that occupies a gallery space, and that echoes, through shadow across the adjacent walls. In one sense the opposite of a monument—open, light and floating rather than solid, massive and anchored—this represents a delicate and inviting enlargement and tribute to a customary genre, and to the traditional sociality and society that it enacted, as shells were gathered, ground, refined, assembled, presented, received and redistributed.
Yet what is most telling about Beroana—exhibited at the Sharjah Biennale in the United Arab Emirates in 2017 among other places—is that it turns the museum artefact inside out. The object ceases to be a customary treasure, hidden away within a drawer, but instead becomes the thing that occupies and defines a space and an environment. Beroana is architectural: it marks a built environment and the protocols and social relations through which lives are lived.
Taloi Havini’s most spectacular and recent work is Habitat (2017), an installation shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, consisting of geological maps presented as wallpaper, and an absorbing triple‑screen video, that dwells on and in the Bougainville landscape, taking us over and through the ruins of the Panguna copper mine, and its residues in the environment and in people’s lives. The video, which runs for just under 11 minutes, is mesmerising and needs to be seen and heard rather than described. It is an evocation of place, sound and water and of the former extraction of mineral resources on the massive scale associated with industrial globalisation.
Even 30 years after Panguna’s closure at the beginning of the conflict, the pollution from tailings into the rivers is still obvious. The piece works through a combination of aerial and intimate views, moving between exposed rock and dirty water to the hands of a woman cutting fish and, most tellingly, of a figure walking across what appears to be a desert landscape, who then is seen working through gravel in a bed‑sized sieve. This woman, Agata, is garnering mineral residues, engaging in what development economists and other professionals refer to as artisanal small‑scale mining (ASM), an activity said to occur in 80 countries worldwide, and involving around 100 million miners. The work is informal and “unproductive” in relative economic terms but generates significant percentages of the sapphires and gold that enter world markets.
Taloi Havini’s film work is evocative, elegant and affecting. Its style is not that of a documentary, yet in presenting this kind of mining, this “low‑end” of the global economy, it brings us news of the people, places and events that have been off the radar, overshadowed by the awesome scale and history of the abandoned mine, and the legacy of colonial and postcolonial conflicts that the region has witnessed. Habitat’s concerns resonate widely, as Papua New Guinea is caught up in a new minerals boom, exemplified by Exxon’s huge natural gas project, while new Asian investments and large‑scale forestry and fishing enterprises impact on other Melanesian nations.
In 2009 Havini and the Australian photographer Stuart Miller collaborated to produce Blood Generation a series of powerful, overtly contrived portraits, of those called by older people on Bougainville the “blood generation,” who were born during the decade of violence. These men and women are in and around water, on the edges of the great former mine, posed within an improvised boxing ring, in front of corrugated iron. Their situations and expectations appear uncertain. Yet the future is theirs; they prepare to inhabit it and shape it.
Nicholas Thomas is director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. With Peter Brunt, he is co‑curator of Oceania, on exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 29 September – 10 December 2018 and the Musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac opening in March 2019.
Taloi Havini’s Habitat, 2017, originally commissioned for The National by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and adapted for her Pavilion Neuflize OBC residency and solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, will be presented as a new iteration in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 24 November 2018 – 28 April 2019 at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.