The paradox of the alienation and preservation of culture

22 October 2020


CHANGE is an inevitable threat to art and culture in Melanesia. And change is constant in the universe.

Art and culture is formed from belief systems, ways of viewing the world, making things (material culture) that are either inherited or part of contemporary life.

And it is the active participation of the custodians of these things that are most likely to guarantee their preservation.

The last Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival was held in Port Moresby from 28 June to 11 July 2014.

It presented a great opportunity for Melanesians to demonstrate their arts and crafts and traditional practices while learning and appreciating from each other.

While the event was important for this and for building friendships and solidarity, some noteworthy issues also surfaced. One was the potential for certain cultural objects – what we can call  material culture – to be abused and alienated from their original contexts.

To me, removing certain arts, crafts, traditional practices and cultural symbols from their natural cultural milieu without consideration of their sacredness or preservation amounts to abuse.

An art or craft removed from its creativity, ingenuity and traditional context can lose its significance. This can also be so if the person who crafted the object remains distant or hidden. This then gives rise to the object becoming a mere product or commodity.

Loss of cultural significance has dire consequences for the people concerned. Among other things, it may include cultural, moral and natural meanings and values. Important among these is the loss of identity of the people directly connected with it.

The knowledge, art and skill of salt-making were displayed at the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture. Traditionally the skills needed to extract salt were a closely guarded secret and the process had strict practices and protocols.

Those who had the knowledge and skills were a select group of people who had to observe strict taboos.

The practice of salt making remained sacred as long as it was conducted in its natural context. But taken out of that, it became a just process and lost its cultural significance.

With the introduction of modern salt, traditional salt making has become merely an art with little or no cultural significance.

Yet paradoxically, given what we observed at the Festival, the preservation of culture will entail that a commercial element be inserted into its management.

That commercial element can be introduced through a business model – perhaps developed by the National Cultural Commission (NCC) with the assistance of the Office of Tourism, Arts and Culture and the National Museum after a comprehensive audit and analysis of traditional and cultural arts, crafts, and practices including totems and beliefs.

I am thinking of this being tied to a sleeping giant such as the tourism industry.

Look at the provincial flags. They are the unique symbols of each province. Only provincial governments should have the legal rights to manufacture and sell their respective flags.

Arts and crafts such as bilum manufacture, carving, song and dance, drama and story-telling seem to depend on how well we market them.

There are also certain cultural practices, objects and crafts that will best retain their value and significance if they remain in the possession of select groups of people.

The framework for this can be provided through policy and relevant legislation which will demarcate what can be displayed and made available for public consumption, what can be traded or sold as a commodity and what should be guarded against abuse, maintaining sacredness and exclusivity.

Of course, the very act of publicly displaying certain dances or artifacts can open the door to the diminishing of their value and significance. It is open to its abuse and prostitution. Don’t we lose our culture and identity in this way? Or is it that promotion can lead to preservation? Such questions can make us re-examine our practices and attitudes.

Consider a mask usually worn at the conclusion of an initiation ceremony for young men. Given the exclusive nature of the ceremony, the mask could only be worn by the newly initiated. There were certain practices and protocols associated with it.

But given that this initiation ceremony died quite a while back, the mask has merely become a commodity for display to tourists and to be placed in museums. I have seen some worn at festivals and singsings in Simbu and Jiwaka, but without the significance tied to the initiation ceremony.

The mask I am referring to is called Gerua in my dialect. With colourful decorations, it is usually worn as a headdress and can extend up to two metres above the head. I am told that the Gerua is not as common as it used to be.

I would encourage the younger generation to participate in initiations in their own cultures and in their own communities in which the meaning and significance is pure. These ceremonies inculcate among initiates harmony with nature and harmony with people, and provide the tools of how one can negotiate and live with both man and nature for a purposeful and successful life.

I have heard from friends from other parts of the country that they have felt stronger, confident and enlightened after undergoing an initiation ceremony. We are all responsible for preserving and promoting aspects of our cultures that can help in uniting and building our communities, and ultimately nation building.

After all, culture is who we are and has a lot to do with how we advance.

This article was originally posted on PNG Attitude on 16 June 2015. It is an entry in the Crocodile Prize PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum Award for Essays & Journalism. The complete article with comments from readers may be read here

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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