A Tale To Tell

Rex Maukos, Kwoma people, Tongwinjamb village, East Sepik River, Papua New Guinea painting ceiling panels for Kwoma / APT7 Commission, Brisbane, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

The telling of stories is important in Papua New Guinea. It is the way that knowledge is passed on, a time to relax, and an important means of connecting with others.

This story is about the Gallery’s latest project — a tale that began in July 2011 when Michael O’Sullivan and myself, and guest co-curator Martin Fowler travelled to New Britain and the East Sepik River in Papua New Guinea to conduct research for ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art‘ (APT7).

The National Mask Festival in Kokopo, East New Britain was our first stop. Here, the spirits arrived in an awesome procession, amidst kundu drumming, singing and chanting. Immersed in this soundscape, intricately patterned masks were spectacularly animated, creating an emotionally charged experience for everyone present.

Bruno Akau and Alfred Sapu, Pileo island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea Tabuan Kamut Mut 2011 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Attendance at the festival provided important opportunities for our team to engage in long discussions with artists and community leaders about their work and its significance within their lives.  Such exchanges resulted in the acquisition of masks from five different cultural groups from across New Britain and the Sepik River. These objects, which will be part of a major presentation in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) for APT7, demonstrate the continuing vibrancy of works created to be used in customary contexts in Papua New Guinea.

The Sepik River region is known around the world for producing some of the most dynamic products of the human imagination. Yet most literature on this art positions it in the context of ‘authentic traditions’ and a distant past. Our experience as we travelled from the Prince Alexander mountains down to the Sepik river revealed the opposite, as groups of artists from Abelam, Kwoma, Arapesh and Iatmul cultural groups demonstrated the continuing relevance of their respective traditions and the different ways in which they evolve in response to new experiences and audiences.

Kwoma artists working on drawing by Nelson Makamoi, Ilahita, painting workshop, July 2011 | Photograph: © Richard Kendall

One example is the painting workshop conducted in the Arapesh village of Ilahita. This event provided opportunities to talk with a wide range of artists about their work, its relationship to their different cultures as well as to see how they responded to using introduced materials such as canvas, plywood and synthetic polymer paints.

Waikua Nera, Ilahita painting workshop, July 2011 | Photograph: © Richard Kendall
Waikua Nera, Korumbo (Spirit house), 2006, Brikiti village, Papua New Guinea / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Following this workshop, we moved from the village of Ilahita, through Maprik and down the river to Ambunti, Tongwinjamb and Yessan, where there were opportunities to view spectacular ceremonial men’s houses and Koromb (Spirit house) created from locally sourced, ephemeral materials by artists involved in the workshop. The extraordinary presence of these structures and the art created for them provided the impetus to propose two major commissions that responded to the ongoing tradition of Sepik men’s houses, for APT7.

A return visit to the region in November 2011 resulted in the invitation of 10 artists to work on these commissions. Three Abelam artists — Waikua Nera, Nikit Kiawaul and Kano Loctai, were invited to create a new work responding to the Korumbo (Spirit house) created in their village of Brikiti — Apengai. Seven Kwoma artists were also invited — Anton Waiawas, Rex Maukos, Kevin Apsepa, Simon Goiyap, Terry Pakiey, Nelson Makamoi and Jamie Jimok — to create new work based on the spectacular painting and carving found in their Koromb (Spirit house). These are the equivalent of a parliament house for the Kwoma people. They use these structures as places to come together, in the presence of the spirits, to debate and make important community decisions.

Simon Goiyap, Koromb (Spirit house), Mino Village, Papua New Guinea / Photograph: © QAGOMA

It was important for us that the creation of work for these commissions take place in Brisbane, Queensland so that the artists had the opportunity to view the spaces in which their work would reside, to meet other artists and see a wide range of other cultural materials. The artists left their villages in late January, many travelling outside of the Sepik region for the first time.

Selected Kwoma artists from left: Jamie Jimok, Simon Goiyap, Anton Waiawas, Terry Pakiey, Kevin Apsepa, Rex Maukos and Nelson Makamoi, Maprik, November 2011 / Photograph: Martin Fowler

All of the artists settled into life in Brisbane very quickly, eager to work with Gallery teams to fine tune drawings and plans relating to the final installation of their work

Kwoma artists working with Gallery Exhibitions team. From left: Anton Waiawas, Simon Goiyap, Michael O’Sullivan, Rex Maukos and Nelson Makamoi / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Within a week, work had begun in earnest and with each visit to the artists there was a wealth of amazing painting and carving to view.

Abelam artists Waikua Nera, Nikit Kiawaul and Kano Loctai drawing up design for spirit house painting, January 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA
Kwoma artist Terry Pakiey, working of painting, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA
Abelam artist Kano Locatai carving lintel for Koromb (Spirit house), February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Visits to the workshop have been made by local Aboriginal community leaders, the PNG Consul General, Brisbane and project sponsors Kramer Ausenco. Attending the latter event was Kramer Ausenco Chairman Sir Rabbie Namaliu (ex Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea) and, a big hit, Ambassador Mal Meninga (Australian former rugby league test captain and current coach of Queensland’s State of Origin team).

Kramer Ausenco Ambassador Mal Meninga with Kwoma artist Terry Pakiey, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOM

A month into the project, and the Abelam artists are now completing the final painted panels for their majestic house front. The carving is finished, and cane and palm leaf fronds are at the ready to weave the Korumbo (Spirit house) cap, a small woven basket shaped cap at the apex of the triangular face which protects the house and the spirits inhabiting it. A few final pieces and decorative bilas, such as bilums, flowers, and seeds will be shipped to Brisbane and installed by the artists when they return to work with Gallery workshop and installation staff to erect the Haus in November.

Painting for Korumbo (Spirit house), February 2012 | Photograph: Kevin Apsepa / Photograph: © QAGOMA

The Kwoma team have another month on site to finish carving and painting. Visits to the studio involve much storytelling as each of the artists speaks about the designs they are creating. Despite great differences in their cultures, an important subject for both groups is their relationship to place — the importance of nature, its transformation into complex cosmologies and the histories of change.

Koromb (Spirit house) post carvings by Simon Goiyap (left), and Nelson Makamoi and Jamie Jimok (right), February 2012 / Photograph: Simon Goiyap

The capacity for change is exemplified in these works, adaptability demonstrated through the incorporation of new ideas and materials. That said, the works are powerfully tied to strong cultures. These works stand apart, as a reminder that while we live in an environment of transition and global exchange, the ways in which we communicate our ties to place, history and each other are unique.

The village of Tongwinjamb, has now also become my place, and Kwoma my tok ples — the Kwoma artists formally making me their sister at a special ceremony on Sunday 4 March. I am sure that there will be many more stories to tell as relationships between communities in Papua New Guinea and the Gallery continue to develop. Looking back over the twenty year history of APT, the artists supported and the strong ties that have been created, I am sure that these will be positive ones.


  1. I will be visiting Brisbane next from 16th to 18th March to officiate the Opening of Beyond Pacific Art Gallery by our very own Papua New Guinean artist Joyclin Leahy. My Director General, Marianna Ellingson, (Office of Tourism, Art & Culture) will be the Official Guest. While in Brisbane we would like to visit the Gallery and if possible see the artist. Who can I arrange to make an Appointment to make this possible.

  2. Excellent Project with great artistic approach, how the spirit house can be represented in different environment but still maintain the authenticity and cultural richness of the sepik people. Congratulation and well done everyone that involved in the project.

    Looking forward to the opening.

    Motsy Kenull David
    Master in Creative Production & Arts Management

  3. Hi Sebastian. Thanks for making contact with the Gallery. Ruth McDougall now has your email and will be in contact.

  4. I like this! Inviting the living artisans out of their environment and offering them an opportunity to produce the authentic article for us to enjoy. :-)

  5. Congratulations to all involved in the project. What an exciting achievement and what ‘verve’ in the art! I hope I can also catch up with Sebastian, Marianna and Jocelyn! Keith

  6. That’s really nice to see PNG artisans exposed overseas to promote their skills and of course PNG’s culture as well. Job Well Done!

  7. Hello Ruth!

    Thanks for sharing the stories of the works of the Papua people.

    I’m an artist based in Central Java, Yogyakarta. I work with another fellow artist Budi Agung Kuswara to collaborate with a community of batik makers here. I saw of your program on Contemporary Textiles and Social Fabric and thought it will be great to get connected with you.

    We’ll be premiering the work in Yogyakarta on the 7th of April 2012, but meanwhile we have our process materials online at http://www.malamdijarikita.com.

    Hope to be in touch!


  8. Hi Ruth,
    As always a fantastic APT! Congratulations.
    I moved to live in Vanuatu in 2009 and prior to that was tutor at Griffith Uni both Fine Arts QCA and Contemporary Art at the GC campus for 10yrs after gaining my degree.
    I am hoping to open up some contact with GOMA/QAG for the local Ni-Vanuatu artists here. They are really starved of contact and yet Vanuatu has been represented in the APTs often and particularly APT6 with the large screen prints and merchandising.
    I would really like to get an artist to APT7 and have found a grant that may be helpful but he would need a ‘formal invitation’ to be included in the proposal. Is this at all a possibility? If not however, any contact and following dialogue would just be amazing!
    I hope you can help these great local artists.
    Anne Smith, Bach Fine Arts, B.A Hons