We recently caught up with Ruth McDougall, Curator of Pacific Art and the curator behind the exhibition ‘No.1 Neighbour: Art from Papua New Guinea 1966–2016’ currently on show at the Queensland Art Gallery.
The exhibition considers Australia’s strong historical ties to its closest neighbour through some of the earliest works from Papua New Guinea acquired for the Gallery’s Collection. In addition to the spectacular Kwoma spirit house installation the exhibition includes carvings, masks, shields, bilum (string bags), nioge (barkcloth), sculpture, photography, printmaking and painting.
CONGRATULATIONS ON THE OPENING OF ‘NO.1 NEIGHBOUR’! HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES?
Thank you! 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 the gallery put in. We like to celebrate by sharing food and giving thanks together at the end of opening night.
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.
And now, the QAGOMA Qs…
FAVOURITE PIECE IN THE PERMANENT COLLECTION? The woven Puk puk (crocodile) by Angelina Gumowe, Kwoma Art’s Koromb (spirit house) and Mary Gole’s Milne Bay Cooking Pot.
“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.”
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 / © The artist
WHAT 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.
BRISBANE HAS THE BEST… climate.
I HAVE A FEW… Bilums!
THE BEST THING ABOUT WHAT YOU DO? The artists, communities and colleagues I work with.
ON WEEKENDS I… swim, read, catch up with friends and my garden.
WHAT ARE YOU READING? I just finished The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
FAVOURITE INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT? @sunameke
PREFERRED METHOD OF TRANSPORT? Canoe.
THE BEST THING THAT HAPPENED TODAY… I walked through the namba wan (tok pisin for ‘No. 1’) exhibition with Georgina Beier, the artist who worked with Mathias Kauage, Timothy Akis, Ruki Fame and many of the best known PNG artists in the 1970s.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO? Travelling back to PNG.
IF I WASN’T A CURATOR, I’D BE… a writer.
‘No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016‘ focuses on the vibrancy of contemporary artistic expression within PNG. The exhibition is showing at the Queensland Art Gallery until 29 January 2017 and is free.
VIEW THE EXHIBITION ON OUR FLICKR PHOTOSTREAM
BUY THE PUBLICATION
Our richly illustrated hardcover publication accompanies the exhibition, with contributions from Ruth McDougall, Tolai artist and historian Gideon Kakabin, Manus Island musician John Faunt, and commentators Kiri Chan and Ruth Choulai, as well as numerous artist interviews.