Popularising Pacific arts and crafts

March 2012

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The collective promotion of arts and crafts of the people of the Pacific Islands has never got the importance it deserves. Any attempts at popularising Pacific Islands’ arts and crafts in past decades has been left to private enthusiasts, small outfits like inadequately funded non-government

The collective promotion of arts and crafts of the people of the Pacific Islands has never got the importance it deserves. Any attempts at popularising Pacific Islands’ arts and crafts in past decades has been left to private enthusiasts, small outfits like inadequately funded non-government organisations or the artists themselves, who more often than not are too poorly resourced to take their creations beyond their small circle of admirers.
The potential of indigenous arts to portray identities, depict histories and beliefs, tell a myriad of stories and build bridges to nations and peoples around the world can never be overstated. Exposure of indigenous art to markets of nations could also result in handsome economic benefits for both the artists and the genre of art that they practice.
Countries have successfully leveraged their indigenous arts to create opportunities for greater exposure for their artists in the outside world and also to establish markets for the art both at home and abroad, not to mention positioning the arts, once they are popular, as a theme for tourism.
To an extent, the Pacific Island region’s performing arts have been exposed and leveraged in the tourism sector -- but they have been canned and packaged for a certain purpose, such as for hotel guests to watch as they eat dinner: more as a touristy experience than for the connoisseur of art per se.
Pacific arts go well beyond fire dances, basket weaving and handicraft making, as popularly depicted in clichéd tourist brochures. There is a vast range of performing art that is practised in the islands, just as there are crafts unique to each island nation. There have been theatre innovations in several countries, the most well-known example is Wan Smol Bag theatre in Vanuatu, which has earned wide recognition around the world.
Modern creative arts such as film-making, especially short films that are gaining in popularity worldwide furiously propelled by the advent of video on the internet, also receive little encouragement and state or private patronage around the region.
Unfortunately so far, regional organisations have paid little attention to the sponsorship and popularisation of indigenous arts and crafts over the past five decades since these organisations were formed.
They have been so consumed by the idea of promoting development that they have all but neglected the human side of things. The role of arts and crafts in perpetuating traditions in society and therefore developing them as living social milieus can never be downplayed, and mechanisms to promote them must be in place at all times. This is a realisation that has apparently not dawned on the region’s leaders.
The same can be said of private organisations that have been operating in the region. Perhaps it is also because the region has not yet thrown up an inspiring figure with enough gravitas to galvanise a focus on indigenous arts and crafts in both public and private sectors.
It is virgin territory for sponsorship and commercial organisations looking towards popularising their brands can well be tapped for their patronage without much difficulty.
But the winds of change seemed to be blowing on the Pacific Islands arts scene and the past couple of years has seen some encouragement come the way of the region’s creative industries. The past two years have seen the event called Maketi Ples (Market Place) taking shape in Australia.
The driving force behind the event is a Pacific Islands Forum organisation -- Pacific Trade & Invest (PT&I). Last month, PT&I held the second Maketi Ples event in Sydney. Some 100 people comprising a mixture of art collectors, art buyers and supporters mingled with artists from several Pacific Islands countries. This year’s event, which runs until March 11, builds on last year’s successful inaugural Maketi Ples, also held in Sydney.
The three-week exhibition at the Global Art Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, is celebrating the work of 13 Pacific Islands-based artists and artisans in what is a unique event for the promotion of Pacific Islands arts and crafts. The artists came from countries throughout Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.
Artisans complemented contemporary Pacific visual artists with clay creations from Papua New Guinea, bone carvings and a stunning hand-crafted dress made of Kafa (braided coconut fibre) from Tonga and beautiful hand-crafted works from Fiji. How art can help provide a fillip to local economies by boosting incomes directly as well as adding to the appeal of a destination was demonstrated by the successful sale of artifacts from the very opening day of the show.
Papua New Guinea Investment Promotions Authority acting Marketing Manager Julienne Leka-Maliaki said the exhibition had direct benefits. It was a great opportunity for artists to promote directly to buyers, she said.
Indigenous Pacific Islands art has not met with the commercial success that indigenous art from other parts of the world, for instance, Australia or the United States has. While its profile has been growing in recent years with more representation in global expos of indigenous art around the world, its artists are still in the early stages of commercialising their art in a gainful manner.
Earlier last month, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, with sponsorship from the European Union, held a workshop in Fiji to throw up new ideas on how to popularise Pacific Islands art and also market it in the wider world.
The workshop focused on developing participants’ entrepreneurial and business skills in areas such as business planning, product and market development, value chain assessment and understanding intellectual property and traditional knowledge rights. Representatives of a wide range of cultural industries -- fashion, music, handicraft, film, fine arts and theatre -- from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Australia attended.
The workshop was held in the run-up to the second Maketi Ples event in Sydney. Pacific Islands art, artists and craftspeople have a long way to go before they arrive on the centre stage of world arts events. But workshops like the one held last month and more importantly events like Maketi Ples are a welcome beginning and the latter is already proving to be a boon financially to the artists of several Pacific Islands nations.
Staging the event in an international arts environment like Australia has helped Pacific Islands’ creative works of art promoted through Maketi Ples not only find a market in Australia but also throughout the world.

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