BY SAM BOLITHO
BANANA TREES IN THE GARDEN, leafy greens for lunch, the childhood of Lisa Hilli [pictured] was like many others in the Pacific. Only she grew up in the Queensland capital Brisbane, hundreds of kilometres from her ancestral home in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.
“It was just like a little jungle,” the 32-year old artist says. “My mum pretty much transplanted PNG to our suburban backyard.”
Hilli was born to a PNG father and an Australian mother, and migrated to Australia aged two.
It was only when she got older that she began to feel uncomfortable with her place in Australian society as a child of mixed heritage.
“I’m neither completely PNG or completely Australian. I have always been made aware growing up that I never fitted in as well. I’ve always felt as though I’m struggling [between] two cultures.”
It’s a struggle many Pacific Islanders experience living in Australia. But increasingly there are more places for Pacific Islanders to “connect” in Australia. Some have dubbed it the ‘Pacific Wave’.
The women weave baskets, mats and fans that they sell at markets around Melbourne. But the group is about much more than weaving, Hilli says.
“It’s also about sharing culture, sharing food, sharing laughter and stories. The group was created out of a desire to connect with other Pacific Islander women, particularly because we don’t live near our families so we were feeling quite isolated.”
And while they might not use the traditional pandanus, their wares are made in the Pacific tradition—using what’s available. “We use anything we can get our hands on, ribbons, raffia, wire.”
In April, she went to the capital Honiara with Melbourne-based documentary filmmaker Amie Batalibasi to facilitate the project.
Over two weeks they helped five young Solomon Islanders produce a short film on the theme ‘Culture in Harmony with Nature’ that will premiere at the Pacific Arts Festival in Honiara in July.
Those selected to participate in the project had contributed to an online discussion group (facebook.com/wantokstori) about issues affecting young Solomon Islanders, which was later used as inspiration for the film.
Organisers hope the project will forge long-term partnerships between Australia’s Pacific communities and those in Solomon Islands, especially in the area of arts and culture.
For Batalibasi, whose father is from the Solomon Islands province of Malaita, the project was deeply personal. She first went to her family’s village in Langa Langa Lagoon aged 13 and since then has been on an ongoing journey, she says, to discover her culture and identity.
“And I’m still going through that process,” the 31-year old says. “I’m really glad because this project will help that process on a personal level.”
Batalibasi admits it can be difficult for Pacific Islanders living in Australia to maintain a connection with their homeland. But she says the growing Pacific community has helped.
“For me, only in the last few years have I realised that there’s thousands of Pacific Islanders here [in Melbourne]. And we all get together, we have community projects and islands nights that helps with keeping my culture alive.”
Batalibasi said the Wantok Stori project was a natural progression from the film work she had been doing with Pacific and indigenous communities in the state of Victoria. Last year she started the Pacific Stories project with community worker Lia Pa’apa’a.
Together, they helped a diverse group of Pacific Islanders living in Melbourne to produce 10 short films that covered a range of topics from basket weaving to traditional tattoos.
“Those films are talking about the complexities of identity living in Australia and moving away from hula hoops and that sort of exoticism, and showing the real side of our community.”