Ideas, PlacesBen Jackson

Some strings attached

Ideas, PlacesBen Jackson
Some strings attached

Over thousands of years Papua New Guinea has developed cultural aesthetics that are intricate, diverse and highly regarded by admirers around the world.

Art, architecture and artefacts reveal much about the spirit of the day – they sit at the intersection of people, place and time, and help to tell their collective story.

In 2018, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is ubiquitous in PNG and, whatever your views on trade liberalisation and neoclassical economic thought, it is undeniable the annual forum is by far the largest event ever hosted by the country.

One could reasonably expect that, with the global spotlight shining brightly on Papua New Guinea, the country’s rich cultures would be showcased to the thousands of visitors and world leaders.

But Papua New Guinea is the self-proclaimed ‘land of the unexpected’ and on the streets of Waigani, the country’s political heart, there are no signs of its inimitable Sepik wood-carved sculptures, traditional kundu and garamut drums, or natural fibre weaves.

There is a distinct and ancient culture on show and it is definitively not Melanesian.

The scene in Waigani is instead dotted with the oriental lanterns, street decorations and even an ornate paifang gateway of China.

Decorative Chinese lanterns hung in Port Moresby for APEC (left) and lampshades made in the style of traditional East New Britain fish-traps in Kokopo (right).

Port Moresby residents have been left mystified by the foreign displays of influence and the lack of opportunities given to the many talented Papua New Guinean artists, who struggle to find paid work.

“I feel like it should be China hosting APEC rather than Papua New Guinea,” said Lohia, a former journalist from Central Province.

“We have more than 800 cultures – we should be displaying those for the other countries and world leaders to see what our country is all about.”

“They should invest more in our cultural items, images and murals to go up – a toea shell, a kina shell, a Sepik bilum – something that represents us.”

Art is a great source of pride for people in every corner of the country and connects modern Papua New Guinean life to millennia-old heritage.

Lohia believes the propagandistic muscle flexing has added another layer of societal scepticism towards APEC.

“People from the community I come from don’t understand what APEC is all about,” he said.

“They ask ‘how is it going to move PNG forward?’ The grassroots don’t really know.

“It makes them worried to see in the newspaper, or watching the news, that so much money is coming in to our country when they are not the ones benefiting from it.”

The longer term impact, if any, of Papua New Guinea’s APEC year is unclear. There is also uncertainty about whether Waigani’s Chinafication will be ephemeral or if it could allude to the zeitgeist of a new era.

Lohia is concerned the disregard for local cultural icons in favour of Chinese imagery could symbolise a broader shift of influence in Papua New Guinea.

“We’re an independent state - we have so many cultures,” he said, “why don’t we use those cultures?”

“Independence Boulevard has all these Chinese ornaments hanging – somebody was saying that it represents good luck.”

“But what luck should it bring to us? There are strings attached.”