We are deeply saddened at the passing of beloved artist, historian and elder of Gunantuna (Tolai peoples) Gideon Kakabin (1956 – 20 August 2018) at 62. Known to many in Australia through his passions for culture and history, Gideon began his career as one of Papua New Guinea’s leading software programmers. His story is included — alongside those of former Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs and activists — as part of ABC journalist Sean Dorney’s portrait of the vibrant diversity of PNG in the preface to his 1990 book Papua New Guinea: People, Politics and History since 1975 1.
Deeply connected to place, Gideon moved home to East New Britain in the late 1990s to teach himself classical guitar, build a music studio and commence a new journey researching the history and culture of his people, the Gunantuna. Never one to do things by half, he founded the NGI Historical Society: a Facebook network with over 14,000 members worldwide 2, and produced a comprehensive YouTube channel 3. He also developed education materials and a training program for young tour guides that he himself funded.
Gideon first had a connection to QAGOMA in 2016 when Australian music producer David Bridie proposed that he, as part of the Gunantuna team, be involved in the music installation a Bit na Ta, for the exhibition ‘No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966–2016’. In his bio at the time, Gideon describes himself as a historian, and it was his knowledge of place and people over the century 1875–1975 that provided the historical framework for the project. In deference to his brothers George Telek and David Bridie, Gideon would modestly leave his contribution at that, but he also co-authored a number of songs for the project. The iconic scenes of Wargi Pintiat blowing billowing white kumbung (lime) into the air, which drive the music video forward, undoubtedly also derive from Gideon’s infectious fascination with the role that the art of deception plays within Tabuan society and ceremony.
Inspired by his experiences reaching new audiences through a Bit na Ta, Gideon approached the Gallery in late 2016 about developing a collection that focused on the art of the neighbouring community of Uramat Baining. An association built since childhood, he was one of the few outsiders given access to the detailed stories behind their works, documented in extensive video interviews and a book, complete with Gideon’s drawings of individual mask works. An unprecedented gift to QAGOMA, the Uramat Baining collection was shipped to the Gallery in March, in one of the most spectacularly painted containers ever to be received at the loading dock, arriving just as Gideon was beginning work with seven artists from Nangananga on a major commission for the upcoming ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art‘ (APT9).
In Brisbane a month ago to work through the final installation details for the APT9 display of eight majestic shell money rings known as Loloi and Tutana, Gideon shared with my 12-year-old that: ‘I am the oldest person in this room, and I am still working out what I want to be when I grow up’. The joy of learning, of moving into the unknown, which took him down so many paths and brought him into the lives of so many, never left him. At the time of his passing on Monday, Gideon was in Canberra completing a research residency relating to the Battle of Bitapaka at the Australian War Memorial, with delivering papers in the UK, launching the APT9 work, a big Uramat Baining project and the refurbishment of the Kokopo Museum all on the horizon.
We are proud to have had his wise insights and support, always accompanied by a very dry sense of humour, and for not one, but two major exhibitions in recent Gallery history. The staff will miss him dearly.
Our deepest condolences to Gideon’s wife Judy and their extended family.
Ruth McDougall is Curator, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
1 Sean Dorney, Papua New Guinea: People, Politics and History Since 1975, ABC Books, Sydney, 1990, pp5–6
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Feature image detail: Gideon Kakabin with commissioned Loloi of Tutana’s for APT9, 19 July 2018