Say My Name

This is a paper I presented at the recent Australian Association for Pacific Studies Symposium, 8th & 9th April 2021 at Footscray Community Arts Centre.

In honouring and acknowledging the country that we’re on today I’d like to share something that Wurundjeri elder aunty Dianne Kerr said at a healing ceremony earlier this year on the 26th January. Among the harsh covid lockdown conditions in Narrm Melbourne, she said that people are beginning to understand how country takes care of us, further emphasising the phrase that I’ve heard many First People’s say time and time again, we need to take care of country because country takes care of us.  I acknowledge the beautiful Maribyrnong river that runs along side Footscray Community Arts Centre. Walking along the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds creek is what sustained me through the harsh lockdown months in Melbourne in 2020. I got to understand the country that I live and work on more intimately. I came to understand the plants, birds and seasonal changes in a way that I never knew of my neighbourhood before. I would often think whilst walking along the Moonee ponds creek that I’m walking the same pathways that Wurundjeri people have walked and lived on for many generations, for that deepened understanding I am grateful. I acknowledge the lands, waters and skies of the Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung peoples, their elders, past and present and emerging. Warimari piram.

I’m a contemporary artist and have spent many years examining and utilising museum collections. I am passionate about sharing Melanesian histories through storytelling experiences. I am a descendant of the Gunantuna better known as the Tolai people of Papua New Guinea. In my presentation today I intend to share previous and on-going methods of how colonial photography of Papua Niuginian people can be re-interpreted and rehumanised. Some of my methods were developed from several research projects and I hope to broaden and refine them even more so through my PhD research. My subject focus is the visual representation and sovereignty of Papua and Niuginian women in front of the lens and holding the lens. For my first year I’ll be focusing on Papua Niuginian women in front of the lens. Within my research approach the colonial boundaries of east and west Papua will be dissolved as a way to assert indigenous agency and collective visual histories and stories that have always been connected culturally.

Shifting the focus

Where the first missionary landed and first mission. Photographer Reverend R. H. Rickard. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library NSW and Uniting Church in Australia – Assembly. (Reference ON 305 / 547)

In 2018 I presented my solo exhibition Trade & Transformation at the beloved independent and indigenous led Blak Dot Gallery in Melbourne. I wanted all visitors who entered the gallery to see this image first. Photographed by Australian Methodist missionary Rev. Rickard, I found this image in the archive captioned as “Where the first missionary landed and first mission” If you look closely at the top [of above image], the same caption is scribed in reverse onto the negative glass plate, the location of this image is named as Port Hunter. On the left side of the frame near the shoreline you can see a dome shaped house. The image is dominated and framed by two striking tropical palms; one is a betel nut tree the other a coconut tree with two women standing beneath them. Compositionally, the main focus of this image is the harbour, reinforced by the photographers’ caption, where the first missionary landed. The women in the foreground are mere props and they’re unnamed. Prior to exhibiting this image I asked Tolai community in a public online forum if anyone recognised them or knew their names. Disappointingly, it’s not uncommon for indigenous people historically to be unnamed, however, where this information is not known there are still ways to ensure their humanity is honoured.

So back in the day, when missionaries and colonists wanted to make friends with us and language was a barrier, they would gift us with bead necklaces and other western materiality. They would literally place beaded necklaces around the necks of women and children. To counter this historically significant image as the site of spiritual and irrevocable cultural change to my own people, I shifted the focus back onto Papua Niuginian women. I stitched strings of glass beads into the photographic paper on to the women’s bodies. In doing this I reinsert the history of trade beads or slave beads as a mechanism of missionaries to build rapport with my people for spiritual conversion. The glass beads in this artwork also make reference to the exploitive labour payment of trade beads for the extraction of copra by German and non-indigenous traders such as Samoan Emma Coe and her family who worked for her in Rabaul. I recaptioned the image Two Women Facing the Future, to centre Papua Niuginian women’s on-going presence in the archive. Their bodies in this image and immortalisation through photography will be viewed by future generations of people beyond me and everyone looking at them now.

Two women facing the future, Mioko, Duke of York Islands c.1882 1000 x 733 mm pigment print on cotton rag, glass beads, cotton thread. Lisa Hilli © 2018

The bead colours for this artwork were carefully selected and based upon predominate colours of trade beads embedded in cultural objects stored in museums collections. My understanding of plantation and colonial histories in my homelands began with these objects. Seeing the thousands of beads compelled me to understand how or why coloured beads got into the hands of my own people. These culturally transformed midi became a significant historical site and reference point for unpacking my cultural history, ornamented and imbued with European manufacturing and indigenous design.

I don’t recall the first time I viewed this picture, but on my last research visit to Rabaul I came across this image again. It was displayed in the former ‘white’s only’ New Guinea club, which is now a makeshift museum. The caption of this image is what struck me to look at it again, but also that my research focus and lens had shifted specifically to Papua New Guinea women .

Image of Albert Hahl and his Tolai wife, displayed in the former whites only New Guinea club, Rabaul 2018

What struck me about this photograph was the fact that Albert Hahl is present in this image with ‘his Tolai wife and child’ but also that there’s no shame in his body. They are sitting quite close to each other, he presents himself with pride whilst leaning towards her. She is holding their son. Judging from the tree trunk behind them, they are seated in the shade of a mango tree, with a colonial house in the background. Despite this ‘happy family’ portrait, my historical assumption is that most European men viewed black women as beneath them, but were more than happy to have intimate relationships with them. A highly problematic intersectional issue that I still see playing out today with European Australian men and Papua New Guinean women and their children, my own family included. That experience is, European or Australian men believe they are allowed and or excused from racism towards their Papua Niuginan wives and children even in the presence of their families because, they’re married into Papua Niuginian culture.

I posted the image that I saw in the New Guinea club on my Instagram account. A Tolai fashion designer Dru Douglas based in Aotearoa (New Zealand) begged the same question that I was feeling. My Tolai cousin provided her name. Ia Warwakai. Ia is a female gender prefix for Ms or Mrs.  I also found her name in research undertaken by Gunantuna late elder and cultural historian Gideon Kakabin. Both Gideon and another Tolai researcher have looked into her story and the son held by Ia Warwakai. I’ve recently managed to find the original negative in Germany, but the photographer is unknown. I have notified the German institution to update the database caption accordingly, to help uncover the story of Ia Warwakai and their son, who Albert Hahl apparently doesn’t even mention in his memoir as governor of German New Guinea.

Screen capture from Deutsche Digital Bibliothek webpage –

I have just started an international fellowship with the German Maritime Museum. I’m very interested in understanding the relationships that existed between Gunantuna and German people. I came across this image that was returned to Rabaul along with 30 images for a photo exhibition held in Vunapope, supplied by Prof Herman Hiery. The exhibition was titled Tupela Poroman: Old Ties and New Relationships.

From the 30 photographs returned to Rabaul, this image for me summarises the gender and race hierarchies at play during the colonial era of Germans in New Guinea. The German planter and his mixed-race child, both dressed in white are at the centre of this image. The Tolai mother standing behind them. Crouched beside this German New Guinea family are two indigenous men. The man crouched on the left, I assume worked for the Germans as he is wearing a striped shirt, which was part of a uniform for indigenous sailors on German ships. The man on the right, might be a house boy or servant for the family. Visible in the background is the tin roof of a colonial house, possibly the German planters home, they may very well be standing on the site of a copra plantation.

The body language of each individual in this image speaks volumes to me. Compositionally the framing of this image shows who is important and who is valued, who has power and agency, who doesn’t and who is centred in visual history? When I think about German and Gunantuna relationships, I wonder how this German planter and this Tolai woman communicated? How did they meet? Initially when I first viewed this image I wondered if this child was or is one of the many children who were taken into Vunapope catholic mission by German nuns and bishops, that led to the Unserdeutsch community that exists today in Brisbane. I have lots of questions that I hope to be able to answer and understand during my fellowship research that will feed into my PhD photographic research of Papuan women in front of the lens.

Daughters of Mary Immaculate photographed at Ramale internment camp, Papua New Guinea 14 September 1945. AWM archive.

My most recent creative work in centring Papua New Guinean women photographically was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial.  Responding to the shared war history between Australia and Papua New Guinea. I focused on a little-known story about the FMI Sisters of Vunapope. Vunapope is the site of the first successful Catholic mission in all of Papua New Guinea. The Daughters of Mary Immaculate or Filae Maria Immaculata was established by French Bishop Louis Couppé in 1912 supported by Dutch and German missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Mission.

I used this key image of 12 of the FMI Sisters held by the Australian War Memorial, at Ramale internment camp the day that allied forces liberated the European and Australian civilians from Ramale. For three years, these incredible women defied Japanese orders to give up their European faith and provided locally grown produce for starving civilians at the risk of their own lives. Several of the FMI Sisters died during the Pacific war and several of them were tortured by the Japanese military police. This did not deter them from practicing their faith, their commitment to the European and Australian missionaries and autonomy to themselves, even during war.

To make visible their labour and dedication, I honoured them by creating what Talei Luscia Mangioni refers to as a “visual kinship” through the use of flowers representing nationhood of the civilians held at Ramale, and Korean, Okinawan and Japanese comfort women brought to Rabaul.

Of the 45 FMI Sisters that were alive during the SWW in Rabaul I found approximately 40 names. To further honour these incredible Papua New Guinean women, myself and fellow Australian textile artist Eddy Carroll hand stitched their names into 45 black cotton cinctures, which are the pieces of fabric worn around their waist, these black cinctures were synonymous to the SWW time period. Where I didn’t have names, I left a latent space in the cinctures for their names to surface to show that they existed and will always be remembered for their dedication, bravery and resilience.


Many of the FMI Sisters that I read about historically replicated the same sense of humanity that I experienced from the PNG women that I grew up with, although this has never been the portrayed to me visually. I wanted to make visible the lives of these women to show everyone the kinds of PNG women that I know, from my lived experience. Not the derogatory, limiting view that Australian aid, development and Australian news media regurgitates.

I’m pursing a PhD project because as Cannongate Books editor Ellah Wakatama says “if I’m only publishing the things that have already been published before, the story is incomplete. Our job is to create that culture […] a culture that is diverse so that in 20, 30 year’s time students will understand what the culture was like[…] and that culture has to tell a complete story of what a nation is.” Papua New Guinean narratives are vastly incomplete. Further to this, the stories that exist and have been told about us, aren’t necessarily being told by us.

Being able to pursue and lead this creative project, independently with a significant amount of time and substantial resources gave me a taste of creative agency that was very liberating. In exploring the lives and incredible history of the FMI Sisters, they taught me so much about body sovereignty, empowerment through the church, and the power of education, which was highly unexpected. A recent conversation with a female photographer who was raised in the catholic church spoke lovingly of how Catholic sisters stepped in and supported her family, when her parents were going through divorce as a teen. When I shared with her the story of the FMI Sisters and that the last place, I expected to find feminism or pawa meri’s in Papua New Guinea was in the catholic church, she left me with these insightful words;

The FMI sisters are living proof of this. This is what’s at the essence of my research for my PhD project.

2 Replies to “Say My Name”

  1. ” More than just a wife” I loved that caption. That even in those dark times, Europeans valued our women-through the matrilineal rights. Have to get a copy of the book.

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