Solomon Islands: Enchantment and the colonial shadow exhibition

28th August 2016

Recently I was in Meanjin (local Indigenous name for the site of Brisbane) researching at the Fryer Library on the beautiful campus of University of Queensland (UQ) in St Lucia.To get there, I caught the train from my mother’s home in Ipswich to Toowong and travelled along the mighty Brisbane River  aboard a city cat ferry – it’s such a great way to travel and navigate a capital city that is dominated by a large snaking river. I had previously been told that the Anthropology Museum Collection at UQ was an impressive one and I was hoping to introduce myself, whilst I was on campus.  Serendipity struck as an email came in a week before my departure from Narrm (Melbourne). The UQ Anthropology Museum were requesting permission to screen a film that I had co-produced in 2012 for the Festival of Pacific Arts in Honiara, Solomon Islands.  This film they were requesting was Wea Nao Mi? (Where Am I?) a collaborative film between Victorian Pacific Islanders and Solomon Islander young people.

I was more than happy to deliver the film in person and meet the staff at the Anthropology Museum as I was aware that they had previously engaged local artist Chantal Fraser to respond to a beautiful Papua New Guinean women’s mourning cape and vest.  For a long time as an adult, I never really understood the role of mourning garments. In European cultures, I understand the significance of wearing black either at funerals and for a mourning period. It wasn’t until I experienced the death of my maternal Uncle that I was given a sharp and painful reminder that death is a part of life and it can happen when you least expect it.  Experiencing my uncles sudden death knocked the wind out of me.  He was such a strong, positive male role model in my life. I mourned the fact I would never get to hold his warm hand again or listen to his infectious laugh and more so, have his guidance of my research of Tolai midi.

I travelled to my mothers home for the ‘haus krai’ not long after I was told of his death. When I got there, I had severe difficulty socialising with any of the familiar guests and supporting families from the Tolai community, who came to bring us food and spend time with us during this difficult period. The weight of my emotional response to my uncles death was overwhelmingly heavy and I didn’t know how to deal with what I was feeling. The grief I was experiencing felt like physical pain that I couldn’t bear and trying to articulate it was impossible, hence my own social dysfunction. It took me a long time to recover from my uncles death.

When I look at mourning garments now, I see them with new eyes.  I can see and feel the visceral experience of why they were made. Initially, I had admired the skill and beauty of the mourning made by PNG women, which is made of hundreds of jobs tears seeds, stitched with natural fibre, similar to the technique of Bilum / string bags of Papua New Guinea. The mourning cap, is made from the same materials and I imagine that the hanging seeds would cover the eye-line and allow the wearer to be in a state of introvert or closed off from the world until the removal of the cap.  This made so much sense to me post-mourning and I wish I had something like it during my uncles death to explicitly communicate non-verbally that I was in no state to communicate verbally as I was in deep pain.

I love the language of materiality. It has opened up a completely new dialogue within my arts practice and brought me ever closer to my materially rich culture in Papua New Guinea.  I got to see the womens mourning vest in person whilst I was at the Anthropology Museum. That was a rich experience.  I’m looking forward to creating my own embodied experience of this historical and still relevant object for me and my community.

Wea Nao Mi? (Where Am I?) can be seen at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum as part of the Solomon Islands: Re-enchantment and the colonial shadow exhibition.

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