Interview: Ruth McDougall, Curator ‘No. 1 Neighbour’

Ruth McDougall / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

We caught up with Ruth McDougall, Curator of Pacific Art and the curator behind the 2016 exhibition ‘No.1 Neighbour: Art from Papua New Guinea 1966–2016

The exhibition focused on the vibrancy of contemporary artistic expression within Papua New Guinea, and considered Australia’s strong historical ties to its closest neighbour through some of the earliest works from PNG acquired for the Gallery’s Collection. In addition to the spectacular Kwoma spirit house installation the exhibition included carvings, masks, shields, bilum (string bags), nioge (barkcloth), sculpture, photography, printmaking and painting.

Kwoma Arts, Papua New Guinea est. 2012 / Kwoma people, East Sepik Province / ‘No.1 Neighbour’ installation view of Koromb (spirit house) 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint, plywood, blackbutt, steel / Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Kwoma Arts / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Installation view of ‘No. 1 Neighbour′ featuring bilums from the Gallery’s Collection / © The artists / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

The best thing about working with artists from the Pacific is that they are a community. An exhibition only happens because of the energy and commitment that they and my colleagues here at QAGOMA put in. We like to celebrate by sharing food and giving thanks together at the end of opening night. Ruth McDougall, Curator of Pacific Art

What is the most interesting thing you learned while curating ‘No. 1 Neighbour’?

That tok pisin ­– the creole language spoken in PNG – came from Queensland! It was developed so that individuals from different cultural groups throughout Melanesia could communicate with others who had been coerced into working on the Queensland sugar farms.

What is the most exciting thing happening in Pacific art at the moment?

I am excited by how confidently emerging Indigenous leaders are facing the challenges of our contemporary world. I am really enjoying the work by people such as activist Jennifer Waiko, Geraldine Paul’s community reconciliation projects, and Serina Sumanop’s organisation, The Youth Inc.

The Pacific fashion industry is also something to watch – keep an eye out for Stella Magazine’s runway, the Fiji Fashion Week and the annual Goroka Bilum Festival. The strength of women’s voices in art and design is incredibly exciting.

What can we all do to promote good relationships with PNG?

Firstly, we can actively seek more nuanced understandings of PNG, its cultures and its people by engaging with the communities based here in Australia. I would also love to see the media supplement the overly sensational accounts with reports from journalists such as the ABC’s Sean Dorney, The Australian’s Rowan Callick and author Drusilla Modjesca.

And of course, if you can, travel there!

Your job takes you all over the Pacific — do you have any travel tips you’ve picked up along the way?

Get out of the big hotels, find the local markets, talk to people and try local food.

Favourite piece in the Collection?

The woven Puk puk (crocodile) by Angelina Gumowe, Kwoma Art’s Koromb (spirit house) and Mary Gole’s Milne Bay Cooking Pot.

I love prizing open Angelina Gumowe’s woven beasts wide, sharp toothed jaws to show audiences the tongue the artist has ingeniously woven inside. Its like a secret joke she shares with us and totally in keeping with the fabulous, dry humour that accompanies many conversations I have with PNG artists.’

The Milne Bay pot was one of the first works of Mary Gole that I acquired for the Collection. I love the elegant  simplicity of the cooking pot with its expansive belly able to feed many.

Installation of Angelina Andiboli Gumowe’s Puk puk (crocodile) 2011 in ‘No. 1 Neighbour’ / Woven gumba tree fibre with natural pigments / Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / Photographs: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Gole, ML, Joyce Mary Aresepa, Papua New Guinea b.1951 / Cooking pot 1997 / Hand-thrown earthenware with incised decoration and beeswax / Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Mary Gole

What would we be most surprised to learn about being a curator?

The word ‘curator’ means ‘to care for’. At the heart of what we do is about relationships with artists, communities, objects and audiences.

I have a few…


Preferred method of transport?


What are you looking forward to?

Travelling back to PNG.

If I wasn’t a Curator, I’d be…

a writer.

Ruth McDougall installing ‘No. 1 Neighbour’ in the Queensland Art Gallery’s watermall / / Photographs: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
‘No. 1 Neighbour’ installed in the Queensland Art Gallery’s watermall / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

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No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016‘ Queensland Art Gallery 15 October 2016 – 29 January 2017