Uramat Mugas: Uramat Story Songs


Developed in collaboration with Papua New Guinea’s Indigenous Uramat Identity group for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10), the Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) project immerses the viewer in the mysteries of Uramat ceremony while fostering deeper cultural understanding.

The days begin early in Gaulim, the bustling village in East New Britain’s Baining mountains that the Indigenous Uramat clan calls home. When I wake in a small hut on a visit there in 2019, the world is particularly saturated with sound: raucous cicadas and roosters lead an acapella chorus.1 Small children living nearby — in ply- and iron-walled, village-built dwellings — join in with their patter of laughter and sibling arguments. From the road close by, women carrying swollen bilum (bags) full of produce from their gardens emit a cloud of rhythmic easy chatter as they walk in small groups to the morning market.

Cocoa rehabilitation, Gaulim, East New Britain / Photograph: Gideon Kakabin / Image courtesy: Judy Kakabin

Developed in collaboration with the Indigenous Uramat Identity, the APT10 project Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) seeks to bring some of this context into audience experiences of this cultural group’s contemporary expression of customary art. Flowing out of a gift of over 70 performance objects and masks — made to the Gallery by the Uramat clan of Gaulim and Wunga villages through the late Gideon Kakabin in 2017–18 — Uramat Mugas moves the focus away from a purely visual appreciation of the spectacular sculptural and graphic qualities of the masks and their decoration. Nuanced experiences of sound, texture, colour, movement, space and time are all essential to the ways in which Uramat Mugas seeks to communicate the dynamic ceremonial world that these spirit images inhabit, as well as the deeper ways in which these figures continue to guide contemporary Uramat life and worldviews.

Lazarus Eposia with QAGOMA conservator Elizabeth Thompson, Brisbane, January 2020 / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA
Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) testing, The Block, QUT, July 2020 / Image courtesy: Dr Keith Armstrong

Under the direction of the Indigenous Uramat Identity, a large team comprising staff from QAGOMA and Queensland University of Technology, School of Creative Practice worked with artist and QUT Senior Lecturer Dr Keith Armstrong and musician David Bridie to imagine and realise a more ambitious and immersive installation. The partnership saw the implementation of a sophisticated technical solution created in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology, School of Creative Practice, including Lecturer and Producer Joanne Kenny and Senior Theatre Technician Harley Coustley. Entering the space, audiences will find themselves in a room inhabited by five different types of masks, created for the day ceremonies that the Uramat conduct to celebrate the end of a harvest period or the launch of a new enterprise.2 You weave your way around long drapes of fibrous backcloth used to create the masks.

Poetic edits of video footage of the ceremonial preparations associated with the masks, which the Uramat documented for the project, play across a range of different sized and textured screens.3 More significantly we are immersed in the sounds of the village as it prepares: the lyrical lilt of the Uramat tok ples (Ura language), the soft hum of the surrounding forest and the mugas (story songs) that are sung for the dances in more guttural tones by Uramat men. Threading all of this together are the sonorous beats of the bamboo orchestra — a thrum that echoes through the hollow bamboo as it is slammed rhythmically against a timber plank on the ground.

Uramat Sivirihtki dance, Gaulim, 2016 / Photograph: Gideon Kakabin / Image courtesy: Judy Kakabin

The responsibilities that accompany custodianship of the gifted Uramat masks were a major impetus for the development of this APT project. All staff working on Uramat Mugas have acquired a much deeper understanding of the cultural protocols that surround different masks, as well as the complex history of interactions with outsiders that have led to the Uramat’s decision to prohibit certain parts of their ceremonies being staged on foreign soil.4 These protocols and prohibitions centre primarily around the display and performance of Qawat (kavat masks) as part of the Engini (fire dance). However, the drama of the Engini is specifically what the Indigenous Uramat Identity want to share with their audience. Seeking to honour both the protocols and aspirations of the community, a theatrical response to the Engini has been realised in the second room of the installation. This dramatic 20-minute set presents the Qawat spirit masks with their mystery intact; they emerge out of layers of projected imagery to move around and through the fire. As the spirits dance, we can hear drums beat, voices rise and fall, Uramat children laughing, the community chatter — and the fire crackle.

Ruth McDougall is Curator, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
This is an expanded version of an article originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.4, 2021

1 Curatorial travel was conducted in Gualim in July 2019.
2 Day masks introduced in this space include the Madaska, Guman, Guki, Varhit and Ihru.
3 Ceremonies were hosted by the Uramat in early December 2020 and late January 2021.
4 The Uramat Engini has been promoted within cultural events and shows in both East New Britain and Papua New Guinea as an important Indigenous ceremonial practice. Despite the Engini’s popularity, the Uramat have been unable to gain control over the ways in which their dances are contextualised or the remittances that flow from their public exposure.

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‘Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs)’ is a Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Project developed for display in ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ with the support of the Indigenous Uramat Identity Group of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The project was achieved with the assistance of the Queensland University of Technology, and supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program.

Uramat Mugas (Uramat Story Songs) is in the Marica Sourris and James C. Sourris AM Gallery (3.3), GOMA, as part of APT10.

The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’, the tenth edition of QAGOMA’s flagship exhibition series in at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art from 4 December to 26 April 2022

Featured image: Ihru ,Gaulim, 2018 / Photograph: Gideon Kakabin