Cultural Knowledge Exchange

31st July 2016

About a year ago, I travelled back to my homeland of Papua New Guinea to undertake research of a historical body adornment relevant to Tolai people called ‘middi’.  As part of my MFA research, this trip, research and repatriation was a crucial part of my research methodology; returning middi (cultural knowledge) back to the source community in Rabaul, East New Britain. The reception to seeing this historical object, which was severely impacted by trade, colonialism and religion was warmly and proudly welcomed with great curiosity. My immediate family who live several kilometres from Kokopo, now capital of East New Britain Province, were of great support in helping me connect with respected elders and Tolai people within the communities of Kokopo and Rabaul.

Tokua Airport Carpark, Rabaul
Tokua Airport Carpark, Rabaul

This trip was a profound one for a number of reasons; it was the first time my 6 year old son had visited our Madapai (mother land) in Rabaul and Papua New Guinea, it was the first time I travelled back to Rabaul without my Tolai mother and the first time to do cultural research within my community. We spent two and a half weeks in our village re-connecting and researching the relevance of middi, historically and what it means to Tolai people today.

I learned more from my community than I could ever give back. Returning a middi that I had remade for Tolai people to see, touch and wear was the exchange point for knowledge acquisition for Tolai people and myself.

I asked my family and extended community to teach me about other forms of Tolai body adornment, names, techniques and design. One of these is called ‘Pur’ a lei-like piece that sits close to the collar bone area, made from Tegete (Cordyline) leaves and Akaika (a type of air root or natural rope).  Pur are a common use of body adornment worn both by men and women in customary Tolai performance, with variations of leaf foliage used. I noticed how the design of this Bilas (body adornment) is similar to the circular shape of middi and it was suggested that Pur may be a simplified form of middi, without the labour intensity involved with making a middi, which uses hundreds to thousands of shells bound around cane with natural fibre.

I interviewed several Tolai elders, one of the most notable being Damien Kereku, former chairman of the Mataungan Association; a grass roots, village based economical, cultural and political movement towards self directed progress of the Tolai people of the Gazelle Peninsular, New Britain, Papua New Guinea (1). Damien had much to share about the social, colonial and political history of Rabaul and Papua New Guinea.  Damien also spoke of his travels to many nations globally as a former political ambassador for Papua New Guinea. At the time I did not realise the significance of interviewing and eventually photographing Damien wearing the middi I had made. It wasn’t until after that I became aware of his contribution towards self governance through the Mataungan Association from the then Australian Administration up until 1975 – the year Papua New Guinea gained Independence from Australia as a Mandated Territory.  I have since realised that the former Luluai (Chiefs or Fight Warriors) who would’ve worn middi pre European contact have become modern day political leaders and activists and Damien is most certainly a modern day Tolai Luluai.

Damien Kereku, Vunalagir Vunatarai, Tolai People, photographer Lisa Hilli © 2015

Some of the works that I created during this research trip will be shown as part of A Bit Na Ta, an art installation presented part of the Queensland Art Gallery exhibition No 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966 – 2016 in October 2016 – January 2017.

More information about the Matuangan Film can be found on Film Alert, authored by Rod Bishop.

More information about A Bit Na Ta can be found on QAGOMA authored by David Bridie.

Lisa Hilli & Damien Kereku 2015
Damien Kereku and I standing on his land in Matupit, Rabaul with Mt Tavurvur behind us.


  1. Bishop, Rod, Schutte. H & D.B. Jones (eds.), Mataungan: A film on development and the Tolai people of Niugini, Cinéaste 1 July, Vol 5 (3), pp 53 – 58.

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