The paradox of the alienation & preservation of culture
16 June 2015
An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
CHANGE is an inevitable threat to art and culture in Melanesia. And change is constant in the universe.
Art and culture is formed from belief systems, ways of viewing the world, making things (material culture) that are either inherited or part of contemporary life.
And it is the active participation of the custodians of these things that are most likely to guarantee their preservation.
The last Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival was held in Port Moresby from 28 June to 11 July last year.
It presented a great opportunity for Melanesians to demonstrate their arts and crafts and traditional practices while learning and appreciating from each other.
While the event was important for this and for building friendships and solidarity, some noteworthy issues also surfaced. One was the potential for certain cultural objects – what we can call material culture – to be abused and alienated from their original contexts.
To me, removing certain arts, crafts, traditional practices and cultural symbols from their natural cultural milieu without consideration of their sacredness or preservation amounts to abuse.
An art or craft removed from its creativity, ingenuity and traditional context can lose its significance. This can also be so if the person who crafted the object remains distant or hidden. This then gives rise to the object becoming a mere product or commodity.
Loss of cultural significance has dire consequences for the people concerned. Among other things, it may include cultural, moral and natural meanings and values. Important among these is the loss of identity of the people directly connected with it.
The knowledge, art and skill of salt-making were displayed at the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture. Traditionally the skills needed to extract salt were a closely guarded secret and the process had strict practices and protocols.
Those who had the knowledge and skills were a select group of people who had to observe strict taboos.
The practice of salt making remained sacred as long as it was conducted in its natural context. But taken out of that, it became a process and lost its cultural significance.
With the introduction of modern salt, traditional salt making has become merely an art with little or no cultural significance.
Yet paradoxically, given what we observed at the Festival, the preservation of culture will entail that a commercial element be inserted into its management.
That commercial element can be introduced through a business model - perhaps developed by the National Cultural Commission (NCC) with the assistance of the Office of Tourism, Arts and Culture and the National Museum after a comprehensive audit and analysis of traditional and cultural arts, crafts, and practices including totems and beliefs.
I am thinking of this being tied to a sleeping giant such as the tourism industry.
Look at the provincial flags. They are the unique symbols of each province. Only provincial governments should have the legal rights to manufacture and sell their respective flags.
Arts and crafts such as bilum manufacture, carving, song and dance, drama and story-telling seem to depend on how well we market them.
There are also certain cultural practices, objects and crafts that will best retain their value and significance if they remain in the possession of select groups of people.
The framework for this can be provided through policy and relevant legislation which will demarcate what can be displayed and made available for public consumption, what can be traded or sold as a commodity and what should be guarded against abuse, maintaining sacredness and exclusivity.
Of course, the very act of publicly displaying certain dances or artifacts can open the door to the diminishing their value and significance. It is open to its abuse and prostitution. Don’t we lose our culture and identity in this way? Or is it that promotion can lead to preservation? Such questions can make us re-examine our practices and attitudes.
Consider a mask usually worn at the conclusion of an initiation ceremony for young men. Given the exclusive nature of the ceremony, the mask could only be worn by the newly initiated. There were certain practices and protocols associated with it.
But given that this initiation ceremony died quite a while back, the mask has merely become a commodity for display to tourists and to be placed in museums. I have seen some worn at festivals and sing sings in Simbu and Jiwaka, but without the significance tied to the initiation ceremony.
The mask I am referring to is called Gerua in my dialect. With colourful decorations, it is usually worn as a headdress and can extend up to two metres above the head. I am told that the Gerua is not as common as it used to be.
I would encourage the younger generation to participate in initiations in their own cultures and in their own communities in which the meaning and significance is pure. These ceremonies inculcate among initiates harmony with nature and harmony with people, and provide the tools of how one can negotiate and live with both man and nature for a purposeful and successful life.
I have heard from friends from other parts of the country that they have felt stronger, confident and enlightened after undergoing an initiation ceremony. All of us are responsible for preserving and promoting aspects of our cultures that can help in uniting and building our communities, and ultimately nation building.
After all culture is who we are and has a lot to do with how we advance.
Very interesting points, Phil and Francis. Preservation may have a greater significance if they are related to informing and educating, us and the next generation.
In fact between the lines, I would like to gravitate more towards a outcome of fluidity, in which certain aspects of our culture are better organised and developed for commercial and livelihood purposes.
This also include our symbols and insignia. The Provincial flags situation I hinted above in the article is something our provincial governments need to wake up to.
Outside commercial interests are dictating when and how many they are supposed to be printed. Why are we allowing that to happen, of all places but in our very own country?!
There are more sacred ones that needs to be isolated and reserved for the groups concerned. This is something I think the NCC and the Museum need to look into.
I would like to see the National Cultural Commission, TPA and other relevant agencies getting more involved in helping communities and groups (with commercial and business interests) to develop and organise certain aspects of our culture better.
The inevitability of change having an impact on our culture is a fact of life.
Hopefully policy makers and those responsible for planning can pick up the thread of this discourse, and advance forward.
Posted by: John Kaupa Kamasua | 18 June 2015 at 03:19 PM
Allied to this is the vexed question about the role of national museums in the preservation of culture.
Most of the museums in Melanesia and Polynesia were originally set up by Europeans, including the one in Port Moresby.
There is a distinct lack of interest in museums among both Melanesians and Polynesians. The ruckus over the control of the museum in Mosbi a few years ago attracted little external comment and was confined to a few curators and interested bystanders.
My experience at the South Australian Museum is that Aboriginal people regard the museum as a handy place to store sacred objects (but not to display them).
They find the material on display not only uninteresting but sometimes embarrassing. To them it seems to be a statement of their relative primitiveness and an attempt to denigrate them.
I encountered this attitude in museums in places like the Cook Islands, which has a very small museum displaying mostly historical artefacts from the missionary period.
Taking people from the bush to the Mosbi museum similar attitudes were apparent. The artefacts on display were somehow embarrassing and regarded as 'dead' - that is the spirit they contained was still back in the place of their creation.
Francis is right about the inevitable outcome of commercialisation. It degrades and subverts the whole intent of the genuine thing.
Most artefacts were never meant to be preserved. They had a very short shelf life after production once their purpose had been served. Europeans think they are worth preserving because of their inherent excellence as objects of art, not so much as objects of culture.
By far the best option is to preserve the cultural practices and the continuum of artefact manufacture. But how you do this in a rapidly globalising world is beyond me, not least because many of the utilitarian objects have lost their original functionality.
Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 16 June 2015 at 09:34 AM
Agreed John. Many of our cultures have lost their originality, sacredness and significance. A new wave of bastardised cultures are popping up merely for money-making and you will see lots of them during independence celebrations, provincial cultural and other shows.
TPA must look into ways of preserving the originality, sacredness and significance of some of those very important initiations and ceremonial customs or else they will all be bastardised and lose their sacredness and significance.
Posted by: Francis Nii | 16 June 2015 at 05:20 AM