I See Kalakala
Targets, truth & trying not to dig the hole deeper

The deep meaning of ‘The Painting a Black Woman’

Black Woman (The Art of Sharon)
Black Woman (The Art of Sharon)


LAE - The poem, ‘The Painting of a Black Woman’, by Wardley Barry is a sonnet worthy of close attention.

Stanza 1 is a profound revelation of the black male mentality of owning the black female (painting her) and to raise her on male determined, and therefore accepted, societal norms (kaukau – actually less than 400 years old in PNG).

It raises other issues including to ground the black female in society’s values (‘the earth’, though giraun would have fit nicely); to beautify or to bewitch (kambang) her as a black man sees fit; and to teach her to be clever enough to do as instructed and be independent (so that she doesn’t have to be told again?) - so long as she doesn’t talk back.

Stanza 2 describes the traditional commoditisation of the black woman and her marketability as improved and imposed by the traditional black man (‘I took her… / …I demanded’).

The self-centered desire that all her physical traits be left the way black man determined her to be best served (and serviceable?) and even her ‘heart still coloured’. No doubt for the benefit of the black man, whose heart must likewise be coloured, we are left to assume, and therefore worthy of her prize.

Despite this, stanza 3 discloses that the generosity of the proprietary black man is outstanding, particularly where the masta is concerned it seems.

Some form of free-trade agreement results, whereby the black man condemns himself to loss, to servitude through ignorance and/or idolisation of ‘the superior’ (?).

This master has his own ‘magical devices’ which begin to smudge the paint on the prized black woman, who now wears on her lips the mark of a foreign culture, indicating a mouth that is no longer meek – she talks back.

Moreover the talking back was aided by book learning (chewed papers). And, horror of horrors, she no longer abides by the male determined and therefore accepted societal norms (kaukau becomes cow cow).

In the couplet, the traditional black man, poor sod, meets the black woman he once painted at a modern day market and sees that she now has all that modern day bling and does not speak the same language as him anymore.

Very likely this is an easy enough metaphorical story to follow for those involved in the current raging gender debates, while others not on the same page may find it puzzling at first.

Nevertheless, it is pleasing to read the male chauvinist messages delivered in good form, and where the use of metonyms is also prominent, a rare device.

Well done, Wardley.

This sonnet raises some questions in my mind.

Why does the black man, kanaka-ed by giving away the black woman to the masta, not seem to understand that the prize would also be similarly changed in the process or as a result?

Why does the black man still seem to rue the deal and the superiority of the masta?

Does he blame the black woman for her changing?

Did he not take her to market with the intention to sell and then decide to give her away for free?

Isn’t this all his fault? Or, was there in fact a price to be paid that he doesn’t admit to or want to accept?

Are we to assume that the black man ‘maintained his colour’, eats kaukau and still sleeps on the earth?

The gist of it seems to be that the ‘loss’ of the painted black woman is yet another evil brought on by the masta mentality – the colonised mind of the kanaka.

Maybe the black man needs to value his black woman a little more, so that he never gives her away for free.

Maybe the black man should stop painting the black woman and let her be the colour she wants to be.


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Michael Dom

Thank you, Jordan, you must of course be right.

I am sure that I can learn from your wisdom and look forward to reading more of your insights.

Jordan Dean

A rebuttal to Michael's assertions:

1. "I understand your need and Jordan's to want to destroy my reputation, and this has been made clear to your readers also." My comment was to correct the article's misrepresentation and broaden your line of thought. It wasn't about destroying your reputation. A kind reminder: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction - Newton's Third Law of Motion.

2. "A good soldier does not think outside of his or her indoctrinated duty." I was hoping you'd have a broad worldview after completing post grad studies. Perhaps, some literature review about the effects of Western influence in Muslim countries, Africa and Pacific will enlighten you. In case you didn't know, it was the Europeans who told us to wear clothes. Now we wear clothes but they're three quarters naked on TV, magazines, etc. They introduced Christianity and stole our land. They don't believe in sanguma but manipulated us to pray to their fabled Jesus who walked on water, etc. Feminism started in the US and spread to other European countries. I wonder why the divorce rates are so high in US and Australia. Something is definitely flawed.

There's so many single parents in PNG today (even in Aus). Divorce was unheard of in traditional PNG. If a research was done, some of the causes may surprise you. Any thinking person will question whether we're doing the right thing.

3. "Our cultural defenders either do not look forward to a time when women have greater freedoms..." No one is afraid of women having greater freedom. I only DISAGREE with feminists of this generation demanding rights that offer a privileged head start. It is not equality when they feel that they're entitled to certain societal privileges based solely on the criteria of gender. One must EARN his or her place. Pioneer feminism was done with intergrity and common sense. I don't see how anti-men spreading because of one persons awful experience benefits the majority of women in PNG.

We must RESPECT other people's views and opinions. Only a fool thinks his or her view is always right. Having a different opinion doesn't give you or anyone the right to suppress, bully or defame them online.

Michael Dom

And I haven't even started.

Ward Barry

Indeed it has and you have gone a little too far.

Cheers, Michael.

Michael Dom

This has been amusing.

Wardley, you have such a long way to go.


Ward Barry

Michael, all along i have been saying my position on GBV was misunderstood and that you have misinterpreted my poem.

Like you said, It's very dangerous and pretty stupid, i should say, to read a "singular narrative" when presenting issues that concern men and women of PNG. Yet you guys insisted my poem (I Am a PNG Man) is wrong. A very dogmatic and dumb position to take. "I Am a PNG Man" is another valid observation of PNG men and it doesn't deny the horror PNG women face from their male wantoks.

You yourself bemoaned the dangers of the singular narrative, yet the same you was very pigheaded during the discussion of my poem. Be consistent, Michael.

I welcome your interpretation of my poem. But it is my right too as the author to correct any misunderstanding.

And Michael, please don't feel victimized here. No one is trying to destroy your reputation.

We have two eyes, use both. Don't shut one eye and open it when it's convenient. And if someone else helps us see with both eyes, it's polite to say thank you. I'll stop here. I don't wanna feel victimized anymore.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I’ve been reading a very disturbing book by American writer Gabriel Tallent called ‘My Absolute Darling’. The book has been receiving rave reviews but I don’t think it’s very good at all.

To my mind it’s a mishmash of over-writing and sensationalising of sexual violence simply for shock value. Rather than being a good book I think it’s a very sad indictment of modern American society.

While searching the reviews to see if anyone agrees with me I came across the following assessment on ‘Bitch Media’, a website I would highly recommend to some of PNG Attitude’s male readers. What you find there might surprise you.

The following extract from their review of Tallent’s book might also be pertinent to the debate going on here.

“There’s a long tradition of drawing clunky, sexist metaphors between women’s bodies and the Earth, particularly among “progressive” men who think they’re being original by referring to environmental destruction as “rape.”

"Woman’s body standing in for Mother Gaia and vice versa is a particularly sexist, objectifying, and colonialist form of storytelling, in which the Earth (or a woman) is defined by her relationship to men and relative state of despoilment…..

"The notion that men….. are doing women a favour by telling their stories for them ignores the fact that they usually tell these stories badly, and that their voices suck all the oxygen from the room, making it impossible for victims and survivors to be heard.”

Might I also suggest that the debate accompanying Michael's article above has some disturbing elements of what has been called 'reverse racism'.

Michael Dom

Wardley, stop making yourself out to be the victim. You started down that track when we were arguing about domestic violence.

It is a childish position to take.

My comments on your poems are and always will be about the messages and the sound of sense they make to me.

That is my right as a reader and it does you no good to assault my opinions.

In fact, as a good poet you should be sensitive to your readers' interpretations.

I understand your need and Jordan's to want to destroy my reputation, and this has been made clear to your readers also.

This does not touch my process.

You are right in your opinions and I look forward to more clarity on the vague allusions you have revealed in your many comments to date.

Ward Barry

Thank you Jordan for helping Michael realize that the poem is about cultural change and not a sexist epithet targeting PNG women. That understanding has shifted me from being sexist and misogynistic to “cultural defender” which is better.

Yet Michael still cannot look beyond the sexist lenses he has placed in front of his nose. And that’s where the sexist bias lies as is evident in his article and comments. Though Michael now admits through Jordan’s help (I have to repeat because I believe credit ought to be given where it’s due) that the “black woman” is symbolic of culture, he still sees a male chauvinist bastardizing black women. Michael fails to realize that modern PNG has women are painters and cultural defenders as well. Yet he insists on having a black man or big-man as the narrator just to read male chauvinism into the poem (poet?). In “The Painting of a Black Woman”, the sex of the narrator is of little import. The main thrust of the poem is cultural change. Substitute “black woman” for “black man” and see if that changes. (Michael will tell you it does while chauvinism remains.)

Again, the article emanates from a surface reading of the poem (all he sees is a black woman) clouded by a persistent bias to misrepresent the poet as sexist, chauvinistic and misogynistic (the narrator is a black man).

Now if I am to be seen as a cultural defender, I would like to explain why I think it is a good thing. I am not just a cultural defender; I am a progressive cultural defender. I believe there are some elements of our culture that must be surrendered and there are others that must be maintained. Practices like polygamy, some form of initiation and the aspects of our culture that devalues women have no place in a modern society. However, I would still want to see that our singsings and danis, our arts and legends, our respect for the land and the importance placed on communal/external relationships, some of our values still be maintained.

Culture changes and there is nothing we can do to stop it. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and let everything about us get dragged under the Western current. We must, as a developing nation, critically analyze the foreign insensate influences and accept those practices and philosophies that are palatable to our society and discard those that aren’t. We cannot accept everything the waitman says is good, because not all things white is good; just as not all things black is bad. Change is good, but not all change is good. In a world that is becoming increasingly westernized, I would rather we maintain our unique and distinct national identity.

PNG is in danger of losing some aspects of its distinctiveness and we must try to preserve them. Those who would sit back and do nothing about the pillaging and pulverizing of our culture are a disgrace to their Melanesian heritage. They should be ashamed of betraying their Melanesians roots for waitman’s garbage. I cannot help but notice a lot of them here still dancing to the dimdim’s beat. “A bunch of pandejas / Shame on [them]!”

Michael Dom

Another good version.

This one proposes a cross cultural power play.

Who else could the narrator be except a person of authority, a Melanesian bigman in our context, who rubbishes their own culture by an exchange with a foreign woman, not necessarily of authority.

The chauvinist undercurrent in a cross cultural gender relationship.

And this time a black man is changed, so we wonder too if it was a brotherhood betrayed, or an inferior relegated to servitude and returned an equal(?).

Change black for white or some other shade and the metaphor may change its context.

Ward Barry

The Painting of a Black Man

One day I painted a black man naked;
"kaukau" in his hand, the earth for his bed.
I dabbed a little "kabang" on his cheeks
and made his mind strong but left his mouth meek.

I took him to the market to be sold.
The price I demanded was neither gold
nor silver but that he be untampered:
his eyes brown, hands green and heart still coloured.

I gave him as a gift to the "misis"
and on that day I became a "rabis".
Her smoke tainted his mind, his lips white-glossed;
he chewed papers and his "cow cow" was lost.

I saw him at the mall, gold in his hand.
He speaks a "talk-place" I don’t understand.

Michael Dom

Good grief! Late night for me, but so glad to have caught this post. It would be unpalatable on the weekend.

It looks like my article is achieving what it was trying to after all. Here we go then.

In order to avoid the loss of their Melanesian utopia "PNG culture" defenders, dominated by good men, must crush the mouths and heads of their women folk, and
"A bunch of pandejas" too, "/ Shame on us".

(And I think that means you too Keith, but not Phil because he's a male chauvinist.)

This is the reality of PNG society today where there is fearful demand and a strongly rooted acceptance by men, and women as well, that "we must maintain our culture, our customs and traditions' despite the recognition that fundamental elements of it are unhelpful to our society.

It is a bloodied battlefield which takes no prisoners.

Women are a focal point in the battle of this cultural change, and have probably been so in all human societies since the Garden of Eden, laka.

That is the starting point for my interpretation of Wardley's poem.

As Wardley points out the floating words hide a mine field.

The interpretation moved carefully from verse to verse, feeling the ground, before uncovering the deeper questions.

The term "black man" is irrelevant as words, it is symbolic for the narrator just as "black woman" is symbolic of culture. The terms are dualistic, just as in the poem.

The consistent use of those terms throughout my prose was meant to highlight the identification.

The expression of black identity is drawn from the context provided in the narrative: Melanesian society.

I assumed that this would be obvious to most discerning readers.

In fact Wardley explains this himself, "it [the poem] should be seen as a representation of a trend in a Melanesian society".

So the narrator is indeed 'a black man' who with the symbolic painted black woman shared a common "talk-place" (metonymic cultural artefact). But her speech later on is unrecognisable to him.

Therein lies the narrators primal fear of losing his culture and, in this male dominated society, it essentially means the lowering of his position of power.

Yes, we interpret a good poem like this one within the context of our reality. That's life poets, get used to it.

I am within my rights as a reader to make this interpretation. Sometimes clever people call this bias.

Indeed, Wardley's poem is representative of "the trend", the flow of battle against the loss of culture, where the changing of the black woman must not be allowed to happen.

Cultural defence requires sacrificing individual liberties: " mind strong... / ...mouth meek".

Our cultural defenders either do not look forward to a time when women have greater freedoms or consider these issues of little importance, "equality, equity and all these mumbo-jumbo".

A good soldier does not think outside of his or her indoctrinated duty. Believing the worst of their enemies whose "Western agendas and ideologies are been imposed on PNG". 

So, cultural defenders, like Wardley and Jordan, know what ammunition they fire but do not see the destruction at the receiving end.

Jordan sees only that 'I recall your tender blossom' represents "an over-possessive kind of love for a woman".

Whereas it is actually a sexualisation of the art and act of composing poetry, intimately paralleling this with the feminine form as being utterly desirable. (Go read it again, Jordan.)

And shooting the messenger is a common tactic used by PNG culture defenders, even when we provide fair advantage.

Indeed, "it is pleasing to read the male chauvinist messages delivered in good form", and if that was a shallow reading it has drawn more blood and return fire bullets than it should have from 'the narrator'.

I need not make people out to be anything they are not. They can do that on their own.

"Maybe the black man (narrator) needs to value his black woman (changing culture) a little more, so that he never gives her away for free (takes it for granted).

Maybe the black man (narrator) should stop painting the black woman (forcing superficial culture) and let her be the colour she wants to be (let cultural change be)."

Ross Wilkinson

Ward, do not despair. Language is a wonderful thing.

It is commonly stated that there are 800 different languages and double that number of dialects across the different tribal groups in PNG.

Even Tok Pisin has different meanings for the same word depending on where the speaker comes from. And most certainly grammatical construction can affect the way words are interpreted.

Your words have evoked similar discussion on a topic that is occurring around the world as a result of attitudes and reactions arising from the #metoo movement.

Do not despair. Many poets over the years have disappeared into obscurity, their words forgotten because their allegorical illusions are so obscure or meaningless. Keep up the good work and tell it as you see it.

Ward Barry

What this analysis shows is the tragedy of bias when interpretating poetry. Writing poetry and writing in general is a risky pastime. We run the risk of being misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. That is because poetry uses symbolisms, metaphors, language and illustrations which leaves it open to a myriad of interpretations. A number of friends have told me they don’t get poetry for precisely that. But a good poem holds your attention a little longer and makes you think. Understanding and interpreting a poem demands patience and most importantly, and to the best of our ability, the annihilation of bias. Both of them are difficult tasks in themselves.
Most often, the true meaning of a poem cannot be found in the words that float on the surface. One has to dive a little further down, away from the obvious, away from the world that she/he knows to see the pearl that glitters in the deep. This analysis is picking the bits and pieces on the surface without exploring the depth of the poem to enhance a preconceived notion.

It doesn’t help the neutrality of the article either knowing that Michael and his friends have insisted that I don’t get “women things” at all. Does that mean I don’t understand my own poems? Michael has only succeeded in painting me all over again after his own concoctions of me; misogynistic, sexist and chauvinistic. And that’s the whole purpose of this article: to paint me as a woman-hater and incite a backlash from our womenfolk.

The first mistake is to see the narrator, the painter as a "black man". And it's all downhill from there. There you have your bias.

Michael is not trying to understand the poem. He is trying to incite outrage from womenfolk because a PNG man is painting them wrong. I hope they realize that they have been painting “The Painting of a Black Woman” wrong. I painted the black woman in the image they thought/insisted I have been painting black women, but they are still blind to that fact. Sori tru! I don’t think my poem should be taken personally, it should be seen as a representation of a trend in a Melanesian society. But in an age of selfies, who can blame them? Haha!

Since poetry is justifiably vulnerable to a lot of interpretations and misinterpretations, Michael’s analysis should be welcomed. I am hoping other readers, especially women, will also provide their own interpretations. And if they have the time, my other poems can be given a closer look as well. A good place to start is with my most recent poem “I see Kalakala”.

I have to say, Jordan, that your comment highlights the DEEP MEANING of “The Painting of a Black Woman”. But, experience tells me, it won’t be entertained. Olsem na mi bai malolo lo explain nau.

"A bunch of pandejas/ Shame on us!"

Michael Dom

Phil, I believe the challenge is for us to listen to the voices of 800 tongues that make up our singular diverse nation

In my mind it isn't contradictory but a challenging prospect.

Moreover, it is the challenge that writers and poets are at the very forefront of tackling.

For that reason alone the national government has a prerogative to support literary pursuits.

Who else will tell our 1000 stories?

Politicians cannot.

It is a nations literature which represents the soul of its people.

And this also is why the more sensitive readers were affected by the character portrayal in I am a PNG man; it smacked of a scenario which was not in their general experience.

It is sufficient to accept that opposing position from their perspective without having to further defend the 'truth' of the matter.

Jordan Dean

I am not sure what this article is trying to achieve.

A writer observes the society he lives in and writes about it or how he feels about certain things. Why is this poem politicized to suit one’s agenda and suddenly so wrong?

In the early days of PNG literature, our pioneer writers used writing to forge a national identity, push for independence and were vocal against colonialism. They also tried to correct the misconception in colonial literature that PNG culture was savage and primitive.

In much of their writing, the nationalist sentiment was overtly anti-white as seen in Kumalau Tawali’s poem ‘The Bush Kanaka Speaks’, Vincent Warakai’s poem ‘Dancing Yet to the Dimdim’s Beat’ and Leo Saulep’s delightful Pidgin poem ‘Wait Dok na Black Dok’.

Vincent Eri’s novel ‘The Crocodile’ portrays the clash of cultures in which an uncomprehending traditional society is manipulated by a technologically superior and culturally arrogant white man’s world. Albert Maori Kiki’s autobiography ‘Kiki’ reflects the thinking and feelings of an intelligent Papua born into a traditional society in the early 1930s, dragged into the Whiteman’s world via a mission school. Similar sentiments are found in Paulus Matane’s autobiography ‘My Childhood in New Guinea.’

In the novel ‘Maiba’, Russel Soaba gives readers a glimpse of a physically disabled girl on a soul-searching mission to discover where she truly belongs because she is considered a misfit by society. Does that make Soaba a sexist?

Writers use woman as symbolism in their writing to make it more meaningful and interesting. A woman symbolizes life, mother Earth, culture, environment, etc. In Michael Dom’s poem ‘I recall your virgin blossom’, we read about an over-possessive kind of love for a woman. I am not a love guru so I think it’s a good poem.

We are reminded of the breakdown of moral values in modern PNG. Money is king. Perhaps, this poem reveals a bigger dilemma than feminism, equality, equity and all these mumbo-jumbo.

To me, Wardley’s poem tries to capture PNG in its truest sense with honesty and wit. The bottom line is that tradition continues to wrestle with western influences in a changing society. Western agendas and ideologies are been imposed on PNG and we are forced to accept them without critically analyzing them.

I’ve written one poem for us to ponder about.


Look at us
Pawns to any white crook
That turns up with a fat wallet
Let me do a mumu for you, sir!

Look at us
Cargo boys to a white man
That just graduated yesterday
Let me carry your briefcase, sir!

Look at us
Dancing to the dimdim’s music
Not capable of charting our own future
Let me disown my customs, sir!

You want land?
Take it, sir!
You have it, sir!
My ebony ass?
It’s all yours, sir!

A bunch of pendejas
Shame on us!

Ward Barry

And the entire argument began when I wrote "I am a PNG Man" as another parallel perspective to Michael's "We are Dying One by One".

Those who disagreed with my poem said I got it all wrong because I'm not seeing the other side well or that it disrespects women.

But my poem was just another valid perspective among others. I was hoping it would be appreciated in that light. I didn't deny Dom's message. It was and is true. It's happening.

Women aren't treated well in PNG. I did see the other side - read "Pigs of New Guinea". But to this day I still cannot understand why saying there are some good men in PNG is all wrong.

To encourage national, social or ideological diversity, one must entertain diversity of observations, perspectives and opinions. That was something I expected but that was not to be. Oh the irony and hypocrisy!

Perhaps, diversity is a matter of convenience. I don't want to and won't say anything anymore on this subject.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's an interesting line Ward.

"In such a diverse country, the single narrative is dangerous and untenable".

One could almost equate the aims of independence and the creation of one nation of 800 tongues, as "dangerous and untenable".

Ward Barry

Tell your funny friend I totally agree, Michael.

Michael Dom

My funny friend says, "'Maybe the black man should stop painting the black woman and let her be the colour she wants to be'. Yes! Let her determine all her expressions of herself. In such a diverse country, the single narrative is dangerous and untenable."

Ward Barry

Wow! Michael, I'm glad you took the time to analyse my poem. I expected you to come up with something and I'm very happy you did.

You forgot to mention where the "The Painting of a Black Woman" comes from. The shaping of a black woman by the black man, the trading of the black woman by the black man, the change in the black woman when in the hands of the black woman, and the black man's inability to recognize/understand the black woman upon her seeing her... all these were written for the same reason I wrote "Pigs of New Guinea".

I felt these poems had to be written because people are thinking i have low regard for women or perhaps, they're just wanting me to say it so that they can have someone to crucify for being a sexist, misogynist and male chauvinist. One does get sick of explaining, you know.

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