Friday, May 22, 2009

Pacific art set to take Australia by storm

Artwork by Peter Leo Ella
Artwork by Joe Nalo
Artwork by Joe Nalo
Beneath the Petals, by Joycelin Leahy
Joycelin Leahy
Joycelin Leahy talks to a village elder on the beautiful Tami Islands of Morobe province about intangible heritage

Australia’s great sugar industry, for those who came in late, was founded on the blood, sweat and tears of Pacific islanders, Papua New Guineans included.
Now, Lae girl, former journalist and Miss Papua New Guinea, Joycelin Leahy, is taking Australia by storm with an art exhibition, aptly titled Pacific Storms.
Pacific Storms, a contemporary art exhibition will be opened by Australian Minister for Pacific Affairs, Duncan Kerr, on June 3 and ends on July 13 at Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery.
It will, in a way, it will be poetic justice as Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery is historically a significant location for Pacific people including South Sea islanders that have contributed immensely to the sugarcane plantations – many through the infamous blackbirding days - and Queensland's economy.
Ms Leahy said that in addition, staging Pacific Storms in the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery linked contemporary Pacific expression to the region’s significant history through the Australian sugar industry.
“Australia’s sugar industry was founded on the sweat of men and women, some kidnapped and all enticed from more than 80 Melanesian islands including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia, and to a lesser extent, the eastern archipelagoes of Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu and Kiritabati,” she said.
“Today’s Australian South Sea islanders are descended from indentured labourers in the 19th century.
“In the 19th Century this form of human trafficking was historically known as ‘blackbirding’ and the individuals were called ‘kanakas’.
“There were about 50,000 Islanders and 62,000 indenture contracts.
“Under the White Australian Policy, between 1901 and 1908, Australia ended this migration and deported most of those remaining.
“Some were exempted from repatriation, and along with a number of others who escaped deportation, about 2,000 remained in Australia to form the basis of what is today Australia’s largest non-indigenous black ethnic group.
“The question of how many islanders were illegally recruited and how many chose to come remains controversial.
“Bundaberg is a major centre for Australian South Sea islanders.
“Pacific Storms re-unites these communities with their wantoks through a collaborative community engagement at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery.”
Pacific Storms will feature new and well-known Pacific artists such as Daniel Waswas and brothers Jeffrey and Mairi Feeger from PNG, as well as Paskua from Tahiti.
“The show will show key works, not seen in Australia before,” says the popular former journalist and 1989 Ms PNG, who ran Beyond Art in Port Moresby before moving to Australia.
Ms Leahy, now based in Australia, is well-known in both PNG and overseas for being an art curator.
A fortnight, she visited home at Wagang (Sipaia) village in Lae and took a boat to the cultural treasure trove of the beautiful Tami Islands off Finschhafen, Morobe province, to buy art works.
“There are a number of their descendants and other islanders that live there,” Ms Leahy says.
“The exhibition hopes to draw the community together to re-connect with history in a contemporary and art sense.”
The show is coordinated by Pacific Curator Ms Leahy with the support of Bianca Acimovic, Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery.
In the Pacific, when you see frigate birds, you know, a storm is not far behind.
During a workshop in Bundaberg last year, Ms Leahy proposed Pacific Storms as an idea to Bianca Acimovic, colleague and exhibition officer at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery.
After much discussion and a written proposal, the gallery accepted the idea and Joycelin, 20 years experience in working with PNG and other Pacific artists, invited over 30 artists across the Pacific islands and within the Australian diaspora communities to have a collaborative show to highlight climate change and a number of other challenging issues in the Pacific.
These included the killer disease HIV AIDS, security, logging, and many other social threats.
Ms Leahy’s interest in climate change and how it affects cultures of coastal communities in the Pacific culture in the Pacific led to call for new art for a topic which is a hot global debate, but one that is serious for many islanders who watch their homes disappear under the seas with sea level rise and other intense weather.
“Australia has significant geographical, historical and economical ties with the Pacific islands,” she says.
“It is important for Australians to learn more about the Pacific people, as many now live and contribute to the economy and call Australia ‘home’.
“The Pacific Storms programme at Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery extends to and links the community through family and artist community collaborations, professional development and celebrations of Pacific Culture.
“Apart from Bianca and myself, several other artists are all helping to pull together what we need for the show as given the obvious economy state of our country; it has been very tough trying to get assistance.
“However, I am proud to say that the show has developed a momentum and we have been inundated with inquiries about the art, programme and involvement of others.
“It is also a good opportunity to assist the artists to do business with Australian galleries, museums and collectors as well as general public for future business partnerships.
“We are looking for a second venue in Brisbane and in hope to keep the show running for a further six to eight weeks.
Pacific Storms explores the spirit, life, and challenges of the contemporary Pacific peoples.
Pacific Islanders are proud of their resources, ocean, land, environment, culture, arts, languages and their traditional knowledge.
The Pacific remains one of the few regions in the world where you can find many hundreds of languages spoken, diverse cultures and some of the most vulnerable communities on the globe.
Being rich in both tangible and intangible heritage provides Pacific people with an endless source for artistic expression.
“The unique art forms are evidenced in museum and gallery collections all over the world, collected over centuries,” Ms Leahy says.
“It is from this valuable artistic source that a selection of well-known and emerging artists across nine countries was challenged to use their heritage to create a contemporary Pacific expression.
“In their interpretation of who they are and how they feel about their societies, these new works were developed.
“In Pacific Storms, the challenge was to draw away from mainstream society’s categories and stereotypes of what is Pacific art and who Pacific people are, to explore new aesthetics.
“Pacific Storms is also a platform of contemporary creativity which integrates and addresses the real issues of the modern Pacific society.
“The Pacific region is marked by exceptional cultural and biological diversity within spectacular physical landscapes; thus each has their own unique way of building resilience to climate change, globalisation, security and civil unrest, HIV-AIDS and many other social issues.
“These expressions are exhibited in hope that wider audiences understand the complex issues through the diversity of art across the Pacific.”
Ms Leahy can be contacted on email or visit her website

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