Wednesday 24 May 2017 | 12:38 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 24 May 2017 | 12:38 | SYDNEY

No. 1 Neighbour: How culture binds Australia and Papua New Guinea

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27 January 2017 15:48

Last weekend marked the close of the Queensland Art Gallery’s No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016 exhibit. This was a landmark exhibition, the first in Australia to exclusively explore contemporary Papua New Guinean art. The exhibition showcased Papua New Guinea’s vibrant art world for new audiences in Australia who are not often exposed to the rich artistic traditions just across the Torres Strait. 

At the end of last year, the Lowy Institute hosted the fourth annual Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue at the Queensland Art Gallery to coincide with the exhibit. The dialogue is the flagship event of the Aus-PNG Network, an initiative run by the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program with the support of DFAT, designed to deepen the people-to-people links between the younger generation of Australians and Papua New Guineans.

The dialogue brought together 20 young Australians and Papua New Guineans from a variety of sectors for a multi-disciplinary conversation on priority issues in each country and across the bilateral relationship. The themes around art and culture were selected to take advantage of hosting the event alongside the No. 1 Neighbour exhibition, and a number of the participants were artists, arts professionals and curators. They were joined by young professionals from a range of other fields including the law, development, sport, civil society and business. The diversity of the group made for rich conversation, with each participant bringing their own perspective to the issues.  The dialogue focused on four key themes; the role of young people in leadership, alternative routes to economic empowerment, art and advocacy, and contemporary PNG-Australia relations.

Lisa Hilli, Damien Kereku, Vunalagir Vunatarai (clan) Tolai People 2015

Artists present included Papua New Guinean Jeffry Feeger, well-known for his performance painting, and Elisa Jane Carmichael, an Indigenous Australian artist whose work is inspired by her cultural identity and heritage. We were also joined by one of the artists featured in the exhibition – Lisa Hilli, of mixed Australian and Papua New Guinean heritage – who recreated a traditional necklace-style decorative piece of the Tolai, called the Middi, which is no longer worn. Legendary Papua New Guinean musician George Telek, also of Tolai background, wore the Middi she made for the exhibition at his performance on the opening weekend. Their contributions added weight and real-world insight to discussions around viable careers in the creative industries and how to enhance the people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea through the arts.

The arts provide a unique avenue for Australians to engage with and learn more about Papua New Guinea. Many of the works featured in the No. 1 Neighbour exhibition shed light on the complex relationship between Papua New Guinea and its former colonial ruler. The Gallery’s Pacific Curator and the driving force behind the exhibition, Ruth McDougall, explored this element of the exhibition in this piece for The Australian. Referencing a painting by Papua New Guinean artist Simon Gende, of two figures engaged in battle with shield and spear titled Leadership Tussle in Australia RUD V GILLARD 27.2.2012, (pictured below) she explained how it demonstrates the strong knowledge of Australia in Papua New Guinea. Dialogue participants discussed the fact that the understanding of Papua New Guinea in Australia is not nearly as nuanced, lamenting the mainstream media’s often negative and stereotypical portrayal of Papua New Guinea.

Esteemed journalist and long-time PNG commentator Sean Dorney argued the same in his 2016 Lowy Institute Paper The Embarrassed Colonialist, writing that the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea has deteriorated in the 41 years since independence. Although our countries’ colonial pasts still colour the bilateral relationship, dialogue participants emphasised that we cannot shy away from these kind of complex themes. This may lead to uncomfortable conversations, but will enable a stronger and more honest relationship between our two nations. These dynamics demonstrate the importance of fostering and maintaining strong people-to-people links to ensure a mutual understanding, but in particular understanding of Papua New Guinea in Australia, does not deteriorate in the years ahead.

You can find a summary of the discussion and the recommendations from the dialogue in the Outcomes Report. The Lowy Institute would like to thank DFAT for its continued support of the Aus-PNG Network and GE for coming on board as the principal sponsor of the Emerging Leaders Dialogue for a second year.

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