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.

UQ Invite


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

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.

Oceania Now, Issue 1, 2015 – Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival,

14th June 2015

Edited by Léuli Eshragi, Oceania Now is a collection of critical and creative arts writing engaging with lived experience, cultural memory and erasure, politics of place, and displaced indigeneity by a number of Islander arts practitioners around Australia and Oceania more broadly.  It features new writing on contemporary art practice by Kirsten Lyttle, Salote Tawale, Eric Bridgeman, Cecilia Kavara Verran and myself.

I chose to submit an edited article of my paper, Regenerating Pacific Cultural Identity, which I presented at the College Art Association Annual Conference, New York in February.  This paper addresses how Pacific Islander diaspora in Australia are utilising museum archival collections of Pacific materiality, thus shifting the role and purpose of a museum. Interspersed with my own current Masters research, I articulate and use as an example of how I aim to re-contextualise Tolai Middi within contemporary culture, based on historical middi held in the Australian Museum, Sydney.

Pearson Vetuna, Tabunatip clan, Tolai people. Middi made and photographed by Lisa Hilli on Wurundjeri Country, Narrm Melborune.
Pearson Vetuna, Tabunatip clan, Tolai people. Middi made and photographed by Lisa Hilli on Wurundjeri Country, Narrm Melborune.

Oceania Now is an annual publication which supports critical dialogue within the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival Symposium.

Oceania Now can be purchased directly from Léuli Eshragi –

Cost: $15

Cover image: Miro, production still from ‘Haus Man,’ YAL TON, 2012

The CPAF Publication is supported by The Centre for Cultural Diversity and Wellbeing, Victoria University.