Friday, August 20, 2010

The glory days of Papua New Guinea arts and literature


The 1960s and 1970s are remembered as a creative epoch in Papua New Guinea history when some of the country’s best-ever poetry, prose, performances and publications were produced.
These memories were rekindled at the Book2Buk2 conference at the University of PNG this week by the great Peter Trist, a household name in PNG literature and radio production at that time, as he took a spellbound audience at UPNG’s main lecture theatre on a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Trist, now 74 but still looking fit as a fiddle, specifically discussed the influence of the inimitable Ulli Beier and his equally-unflappable wife Georgina on the development of PNG literature and also found time to talk to The National about his own experiences in radio production.
 Beier, still alive but not strong enough to travel at age 88, asked his good friend Trist to travel to PNG from Australia and make the presentation on their behalf.
 Trist hopes that the memories of those glory days of PNG arts and literature will be a rallying call to the present generation of creative Papua New Guineans.
 “It could show them that was achieved once, can be done again!” he extols.
 “I know that would be my wish, and also Ulli’s
 “The past, for all of us, is just another country – but is also very useful.
 “It contains our history and experiences that can be inspirational, and of great value to the present time.”
 An emotional Trist broke down while speaking about memories of another day of the UPNG campus which he first entered 44 years ago.
 “Along an often-muddy track leading from Boroko to the ‘swamp lands’ (as Waigani was known), this university grew rapidly as the first centre of higher education in the country,” he recalled.
 “Under the determined leadership of Dr John Gunther, the first vice-chancellor, I was fortunate to be part of the inaugural staff from 1966.
 “Some outstanding academics were soon assembled by Dr Gunther.
 “These included Charles Rowley, Ken Inglis, Anthony Clunies-Ross, Gerry Ward, Frank Johnston, Ruth Latikefu, Ralph Bulmer and Ulli Beier
Decolonising The Mind by the great Ulli Beier
 “In Decolonising the Mind, his vivid memoir covering those early years (1967-74), Beier recalls the sense of excitement and promise felt among students (only 300 or so) and staff at this university.
 “This was understandable, as independence was approaching.”
 Beier, as the inaugural senior lecturer in literature, had a problem: where were the books relevant and accessible for his students?
 Existing publications on PNG in those days were hard to find, with propaganda pamphlets from the Australia department of territories – insisting on the enlightenment of Australian colonial rule – not appealing.
 Early novels were often racist and unrealistic, by writers such as Beatrice Grimshaw, while adventure yarns by Errol Flynn (who wisely gave up writing, for a career as a Hollywood star), were inappropriate.
 Equally unappealing were missionary tracts, World War 11 narratives from American and Australian perspectives rather than Melanesian, and of course anthropological tomes by Margaret Mead, Malinowski and others.
 None of these publications offered Beier any promising material for young and enthusiastic PNG students.
 In the university preliminary year in 1967, students were taught sufficient English skills to follow a university course, with those who opted to study literature armed with a tape recorder to record and translate oral literature from their village.
 Some of these translations were later collected and published as parts of the Papua Pocket Series, which are now being republished by the UPNG Bookshop.
Aia, Mekeo songs by the great Papuan ‘poet laureate’ Allan Natachee, first published in 1968, and reprinted by UPNG Bookshop in 2006
 Beier produced 25 volumes of poetry, and the series was continued (after his return to Nigeria) by Prithvindra Chakravarthi, with a further 11 volumes, making 36 in all, and have become collectors’ items worthy of republication.
 In 1967, Vincent Eri, then a student, brought Beier a story about Moveave in the Papua Gulf, and was encouraged to expand the story into a novel.
 Thus Vincent Eri became the author of the first Papua novel The Crocodile.
 Another literary achievement during those crucial years was the autobiography Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime by Albert Maori Kiki.
 The first PNG literary magazine was launched in this period.
 Elegantly produced and designed by Georgina Beier, Kovave was published 1969-1971.
 On the Beier’s return in 1974, a new journal was established called Gigibori (1974-1978) with an emphasis on PNG culture.
 “During this time,” Trist remembers, “Ulli had become director of the Institute of PNG Studies.
 “Here, his drive to produce relevant PNG material increased.
 “The institute published 72 general publications on folklore, architecture, art, religion and music; 36 discussion papers on topical cultural, social and political issues; Wanpis, a novel by Russel Soaba; many works by John Kolia and the journal Gigibori.
 “The areas of theatre, radio production and performance promotion was where I had the closest association and support from Ulli Beier.
 “Here at the university, in 1967, I founded the Drama and Arts Society.
 “Our aim was to involve the university with the wider community and provide entertainment.
 “This endeavour co-incided with Ulli’s arrival on campus, so he was asked to join the society.
 “Students involved included Leo Hannett, Meg Taylor, Kathy Abel, Ekeroma Age, Leontine Ovia, Jerry Tamate, Rabbie Namaliu, Kumulau Tawali, Kakah Kais, Pia Leitao, Russell Soaba, John Waiko, Tony Siaguru, John Saunana, Peter Malala, John Kadiba, Elijah Titus, Janet Regione, Apisai Enos and Arthur Jawodimbari.
 “Many of these people were writers, whose plays were produced, and others excellent actors.
 “Most went on to outstanding careers after university.”
 One memorable production was of Leo Hannett’s political parable, The Ungrateful Daughter, in which Hannett played an important role.
 Students from Beier’s writing classes were motivated to use drama to express their concerns, and to reach an audience through productions by the Drama and Arts Society.
 “Soon after came student’s own plays such as John Waiko’s The Unexpected Hawk; Rabbie Namaliu’s comedies The Good Woman of Konedobu and Kannibal Tours; Kumulau Tawali’s Manki Masta; Russel Soaba’s Scattered by the Wind; and Arthur Jawodimbari’s The Sun.
 “Most of these plays were performed in the forum area near the library, where the concrete steps formed a sort of amphitheatre.
 “Later, a performing space known as the Outdoor Theatre was formed on the campus grounds, and was used for plays, dancing and festivals.
 “With the formation of the Creative Arts Centre close to the university (again an initiative of Georgina and Ulli Beier’s) with its National Theatre Company led by Arthur Jawodimbari, the drama role of the university was transferred.
 “I was appointed as part of the arts centre board with Arthur, Nora Vagi Brash, Jonbili Tokome, Rose Kekedo and William Takaku.”
 Plays like MyBrother, My Enemy by John Kasaipwalova (a satirical look at the conflict on PNG’s border with what was then Irian Jaya), Peter Kama Kerpi’s Voices from the Ridge, comedies from Nora Vagi Brash such as Which Way, Big Man? were successfully presented by the company and its paid troupe of actors/dancers.
 “Ulli gave that great PNG actor/writer William Takaku his Nigerian comedy The Fall (very loosely based on Genesis),” Trist adds.
 “Takaku translated the dialogue into Pidgin and the play’s settings and characters into PNG references.
 The Fall’s forbidden fruit, which in the Nigerian version was the fruit of the palmwine, became PNG’s betelnut,
 Pekato Bilong Man, as Takaku called his adaptation, was a great success and the play was included in a country-wide tour.
 “Unfortunately, many of the scripts for these plays were not printed, and are now only memories.
 “These ‘lost treasures’ include another William Takaku adaptation.
 “This was the classic Greek drama Medea, with dialogue changed to Pidgin and the Greek setting transposed to the PNG Highlands.
 “The play’s ‘outsider’, Medea, was played by the Australian actress Helen Jones, whom William had met while both were students at NIDA in Sydney.
 “Helen bravely performed in Pidgin and traveled with the company on tour with this play.
 “Sadly, this script was not preserved or printed.
 “Examples like these show the need to have a printed record of drama scripts, for future performers.”

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