Promoting Pacific art and culture

‘Such visionary opportunities do exist for promoting Pacific arts, motifs and designs. Designers, fashionistas and promoters need to think beyond the hackneyed pale of packaging the Pacific just in terms of the time tested ‘Pacific shirts’ depicting palms, sunsets and surf and the odd porpoise, whale and turtle. Opportunities do exist for promoting a niche art and craft from the region. But what is lacking is vision and a platform to promote them’

February and March are two months that have become important months for many things Pacific—particularly arts, crafts and culture—in the islands’ two big industrialised neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. Being the first significant events after the extended year-end holiday period, they bring with them a certain freshness and a sense of anticipation following just weeks after work routine in the New Year sets in.

First of these two events, beginning this month, is what is turning into one of the region’s most significant Pacific arts event, Maketi Ples, in Sydney. And next month, there is the firmly established Pasifika Festival in Auckland—now recognised as the biggest festival of Pacific arts and crafts anywhere in the world.

While this year’s is only the third Maketi Ples event, Pasifika has been around for more than a decade and has gone from strength to strength. About a couple of hundred thousand people in recent years have been visiting the festival over the two days it is held in one of the city’s most beautiful locations—among gardens and a lake. The city of Auckland does a daunting job promoting and hosting the event, with free point-to-point transport for the growing number of visitors each year.  

The institutional and systematic promotion of Pacific arts and crafts has suffered from long neglect—the arts and crafts of the people of the Pacific Islands has never received the importance it deserves. Initiatives of popularising Pacific Islands’ arts and crafts in past decades has been restricted to private enthusiasts, small outfits like poorly 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.

This has undoubtedly dampened enthusiasm among younger Pasifika people in pursuing arts as an avenue of individual and cultural expression, as well as for gainful employment. Few centres that nurture and encourage arts of the people of the Pacific exist and wherever they do, they are inadequately funded. Institutions like the Oceania Centre in Suva are few and far between and woefully insufficient to provide any impetus required for the promotion of the great diversity of the arts and culture of the sprawling Pacific islands region.

Though the role of arts and crafts in perpetuating traditions in society and therefore developing them as living social milieus can never be downplayed, 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. Unfortunately, regional organisations, so completely consumed by their activities centered on economic development, have paid little attention to the sponsorship and popularisation of indigenous arts and crafts over the life of these organisations over the past five decades since they came into existence.

Any effort in this direction, therefore, must be praised. Maketi Ples, an initiative of an arm of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat—Pacific Islands Trade [HTML_REMOVED] Invest—is therefore an important activity that for the third time this year will be showcasing Pacific arts and crafts in a commercial art gallery in Sydney for a period of three weeks, as it did in two previous years. Well promoted, the event has resulted in some encouraging sales, bringing much needed financial rewards as well as becoming a tremendous morale booster for artists around the region.

Now that it is well established, the event plans to focus on special niche arts every year. This year, for instance, the spotlight is being focused on Papua New Guinea’s art of bilum weaving—a bag made from dried fibre extracted from tree bark, animal fur, sisal or vine—which has been passed down for centuries from one generation of women to the next. Traditionally, bilum bags were used to carry babies, food or tools, and to this day, traditional weaving techniques are still being used to make bilum bags.

It is encouraging to note that the art is flourishing and evolving in PNG. In this time of greater mobility by air, land and sea, there is a new fusion of patterns, materials and techniques emerging in bilum work. As the art of bilum is being reinterpreted by a new generation of creators, materials such as wool and synthetic fibres have been introduced into the bilum making process.

With the recent emergence of artisan collectives in PNG, this vibrant art form has developed into an important source of revenue for the women of PNG. Through their efforts, there is increasing international interest in bilum work, which is now being recognised by some of Australasia’s most prestigious museums and galleries. Weaving bilum is a skill that an extremely large number of women in PNG share. It is also a skill that can benefit their families, communities and the entire region financially.

This year’s Maketi Ples will help a number of bilum weavers and artists to interact first-hand with people from Australia’s art circles, art gallery visitors and the Australian media to share the finer points of their art and craft. Popularising native art in a foreign land cannot get better than this. When artists, connoissuers and their art meet on common grounds, it is a win-win situation for all concerned. There is little doubt the event will go a long way in popularising bilum in Australia and beyond. 

The world of art and fashion is always hungry for new ideas. The mass ‘fear’ created by the so-called Mayan calendar which supposedly predicted the end of the world on December 21 last year, helped focus the world’s attention on all things Mayan and much else that came from the Middle and South American region, including its history. Among the motifs that took off last year in the fashion world are what has now come to be known as Aztec designs. They are everywhere from garments to fashion accessories.

Such visionary opportunities do exist for promoting Pacific arts, motifs and designs. Designers, fashionistas and promoters need to think beyond the hackneyed pale of packaging the Pacific just in terms of the time tested ‘Pacific shirts’, depicting palms, sunsets and surf and the odd porpoise, whale and turtle. Opportunities do exist for promoting a niche art and craft from the region. What is lacking is vision and a platform to promote them.

Opportunities like Maketi Ples and Pasifika Festival must be used to the hilt by visionary designers and promoters to achieve these ends.


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