A philosopher’s stone & the Sepik alchemist

Dr Andrew Moutu, February 28 2021

“From a man and a woman make a circle, then a square then a triangle, finally a circle and you will obtain a Philosophers Stone”. Michael Maiyer. 1568-1622.


He came to Ludwig and his wife Painari Kambe on the 9th of April 1936 in Matupit in the East New Britain. A gem of sorts, more precisely a philosopher’s stone, which is capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, was ushered into this line of a Murik pedigree.

His father Ludwig Sana, had been serving as an officer with the native police in Rabaul at the time. In welcoming his appearance, the Tolai bestowed on him the name To Palangat which translates into an idea of firmness and fortitude, of a road and a pathway. It seem as though the ideas of width and breadth, meanders and corridors, origins and destinations were already there in anticipation of a journey to cut out and create a national destiny.

Just before the onset of the second world war, the young Michael, had been taken back home to the littoral world of Murik Lakes, a tidal estuary where barrier beaches divide mangrove lagoons at the mouth of the Sepik River. During the war, he was educated in a Japanese run school in his Karau village. His first sense of foreign grammar and numerals were in Japanese.

As the war came to an end, he went west to Wewak to attend a primary school in Boram. From Wewak he went further back to the east to receive high school education in Dregerhaffen where he was exposed to the cultures and languages of the Finschaffen area of Morobe. A songang was nourished.

By 1957, he had gone on to matriculate at Sogeri which gave him qualifications, of Melbourne standards, to become a teacher in primary and secondary schools. It was there that he first encountered institutional racism through a dual salary system which discriminated locals. He returned again to Sogeri for further training between 1962 and 1963 and then switched in his teaching career to become a radio journalist where he moved back in Wewak and served as a broadcaster.

His journalism gave him a direct insight into the political machinations of his time. He was attentive, listening and learning the ropes of the trade. He then took up training in public administration at the Administrative College (Adcol), now the Pacific Institute of Leadership and Governance in Waigani. His inimical view and resistance to racism grew to a fervent nationalism that he inspired with bravado, charm and wit.

His outspoken political commentaries made his superiors to become apprehensive so they organized for a shift in his career from journalism to public administration. It was at the Adcol that he and his Bully Beef Club members started and laid the foundations for Pangu Party in 1967 with a view towards getting self-government and independence for Papua New Guinea. In the following year in 1968, great Sepik leaders of the Araphesh stock, Pita Lus and Pita Simogun, convinced and passed onto him spears of leadership and to dream a nation with a path to independence.

By then his own father, Ludwig Sana, had retired home to establish the then Angoram Cooperative Society.While preparations for self-government, including the consultations of the Constitutional Planning Committee were under way, the vibrant young leader had to return home to his Karau village in 1973 to be fully initiated into his heraldry and be appointed as a Sana, a noble peace maker.

For the Murik peace was not a just an ideal virtue, it has to be institutionalised in ritual procedures and operationalised in a personal way. It was as if peace was likened to gold, this has to be achieved through a process of close interactions and refinements as though it were a therapeutic alchemy.

This came through in his style of politics from his hey days to his demise: fiercely nationalistic and purportedly conciliatory. In his own autobiography, Sana’s pedagogy of war begins with inviting your enemy to the table for a feast before the fight. He appointed political enemies to posts in which they could exercise their interests and passions. It is in knowing them, that you can work with them in a productive politics of mutual engagement.It is as though the young Somare was always in tune with the ancient Greek poet and playwright, Aristophanes:

“From the murmur and the subtlety of suspicion with which we vex one another,
Give us rest. Make a new beginning,
And mingle again with the kindred of the nations in the alchemy of Love,
And with some finer essence of forbearance, Temper our mind”

Imagine if we get the idea that peace is both a person and a moral persona, Sana? Recall the ridicule of loci standii over national security and insurgency, the sandal diplomacy or the spiteful estrangement in the house after the crevices of constitutional earthquakes.

Imagine the art of taking something ordinary and turning it into something precious and extraordinary? Imagine the use of heat and the mixing of liquids to create a new chemical compound?

Imagine a negotiation between water and stone which culminated in a work of art? Water and stone begin as unpromising ingredients of different endeavours. Artists use pigments made from fluids mixed together with powdered stones to give them colour.

If ceramic experts of Kainantu, Markham or Aibom use watery mud and heat to make their pots then oily mud is the comparable medium which artists work on in their paintings. If paintings or ceramics reveal a complex negotiation between water and stone, alchemy is concerned with the final outcome: to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as a stone. The means are liquid and the ends are solid.

Alchemists work with mixtures of the stone and the water. They work with a mix bag of diversity. The facade of our national parliament is adorned with painted ceramics, which is essentially painted oily mud, made out of soil taken from different parts of Papua New Guinea and glazed into an ornamental surface. Imagine what kind of nation was the Sepik alchemist putting together as he worked to bring a nation of diversity into unity?

Synesthesia, empathy and sympathy, immersion and performance, the embodied encounters of an art experience as much as of politics. What is the character and quality of the materials we are now using to build on from the legacy of our great alchemist? If you imagine this nation as an artistic collage, then what will we make of the fluidities that surface all too often from our deep undercurrents that threaten unity with schism and disintegration? Imagine the idea of peace as gold? Alas, Sana!

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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