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Do you understand who we are? Do you understand our essence?

Couture versus culture. Melan[es]ia Trump in her kumul dress: for Melania just 'pretty'; for many Melanesians pretty offensive


KOKOPO - East New Britain has been buzzing this week as the South Pacific Export Mask Festival and Tolai Warwagira welcomed visitors from all over the world to experience the magic and wonder of an intricate and unique culture.

The annual festival showcases dances from East New Britain, West New Britain, New Ireland and other provinces in Papua New Guinea.

One of the highlights is the Kinavai ceremony which starts on the beach at dawn. Dukduks and tubuans arrive on canoes just as the sun rises.

Dukduk is a secret society, a sacred part of the Tolai culture. The society represents spirits. The dukduks represent male spirits and the tubuans are female spirits.

The only way to differentiate between dukduk and tubuan is by the mask worn by the dancer. The dancers are always male. Always.

Even though they may be representing a tubuan. the dancer will always be male. Females are not allowed in the society.

As the canoes approach, villagers, residents and tourists congregate on the shore of Omorong Beach.

Hundreds gather and wait in silent anticipation.

I witnessed my first Kinavai in the 1990s. My heart beat in perfect timing with the drums. The chanting was mesmerising. Everyone around me immersed in the perfect rhythm of their heartbeat and the drums pulsating in unison.

The beats lured me into a trance igniting emotions I had never felt before. I was simultaneously fearful, excited, curious, proud and in awe. It was a pivotal moment in my life.

I was home and suddenly my identify was clear and precise. I am a Tolai.

No-one could take this away from me. No-one. Here was my birthright.

It was unfortunate that this year I was unable to attend this incredible festival, instead having to experience it through eyes of others thanks to the internet.

Plenty of video calling. And between video calls my 69-year old mother sends me hourly updates. Every hour on the hour without fail.

This week in East New Britain has proven to be one of significant cultural immersion for those visitors that have travelled from all over the world to witness our festival, providing an opportunity for Papua New Guineans to shower our guests with real Melanesian hospitality.

Culture, tradition and hospitality are fundamental values of Papua New Guinea. They lie at the core of our existence. I can hardly explain this to a non-Papua New Guinean, this way of life. This unique and beautiful presence.

Sometimes I worry that this will be lost. Not me personally but lost if I fail to communicate it to my children or if they fail to do the same. And it will be lost.

We are the caretakers of our culture. We must be responsible. We have to learn the dances, languages, intricate details of weaving and the marks and symbols. We have to learn the legends, stories, carvings, dialects and family trees.

Because this is who we are and what we are.

And so it was that this past week Papua New Guineans around the globe took to social media for a spirited discussion – almost an online battle - about a dress worn by that Melania Trump.

It featured a bird of paradise motif. The kumul that is the most eminent symbol of our Papua New Guinean culture.

A Papua New Guinean did not design this dress. A Papua New Guinean did not wear this dress. But thousands of Papua New Guineans had a lot to say about this dress. Much of it unfavourable.

But this dress bearing our motif provoked a challenge to us to talk and argue about our culture and practices and our responsibility to partake in them and protect and preserve them.

Our culture is the essence of who we are as Papua New Guineans - no matter where we are from or which province or tribe we identify with.

We have had so much taken away from us so we must protect what remains. And that is a rich, vibrant, positive spirit that is deeply planted within us.

Tubuan by Sophia Kelly Shultz:  "I have such respect for the PNG culture and the different mask cultures. I make these drawings out of respect and the need to help people where I live to understand these cultures as best I can"

So I challenge my dear country-people, we who share our Melanesian-ness, to focus on the positives and spread stories of hope. There are many stories and legends to share. We are a sharing people and we can share these representations of who we are online or in person.

This is our Pacific mythology and these are our Melanesian legends and the stories our bubus told us. The are there to share.

We Papua New Guineans have an incredibly unique culture.

Let’s so what we must do to preserve and protect it.


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John Mercury

You're still a tourist to the locals. You didn't grow up in a Tolai village so that's why you have very little knowledge of the Tolai people.

Firstly, these masks and men are referred to as the Tubuan Society, or in Kuanua A Tarai Na Tubuan.

This society consists of men who have been fully initiated into the Tubuan after going through a number of initiations.

Not every Tolai male can just decide to be involved with the Tubuan, their involvement depends on their status as members of the society.

Second, dukuduks are the children of Tubuan and they do not have a gender.

Philip Kai Morre

Is Melania Trump an admirer of our culture or just taking it for granted in the design? Her dress looks beautiful.

Our culture is sacred and profane but in the midst of our changing society and modern development, cultural values and norms are ignored.

In our contemporary culture, the real meaning and essence of ritual, initiation, traditional dressing, painting and caving, which are spiritual in nature and quickly disappearing.

Melanesian culture is very rich but we Melanesians are not really serious about our cultural heritage and preserving it for future generations.

Sophia Kelly Shultz

I have such respect for the PNG culture and the different mask cultures and would love one day to see a Kinavai.

I have worked with objects from PNG, from New Britain to the Sepik River to New Ireland, and long to learn more about these cultures.

This is why I draw and paint images from these cultures: to honour them and to make people aware that they exist. Tubuan are not funny-looking clowns, I say, they are very important members of society.

I just wanted to ask you to please give me credit for my drawing you've used in the article. I was very pleased with that one, and don't want to charge money or anything.

As I said, I make these drawings out of respect and the need to help people where I live to understand these cultures (as best I can).

I'm delighted you got in touch, Sophia, and can assure you that your illustration is both faithful to the Tubuan tradition and also shows your understanding of the art form and your respect of it. Our good wishes to you, congratulations on your publishing successes and hopes that fame is not too far away. Readers may be interested in finding out more about Sophia and her work below - KJ

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