By STEVEN WINDUO
THE frames of reference we use to view the world are always problematic. If you are the one framing, obviously your view of the world is one of power, desire, and knowledge that you gain from the object in your frame.
Whereas, if you are the one framed you are the object of knowledge production in the gaze of the beholder.
This theoretical reference informs us about the construction of power relations and control over others. In the colonialist project the colonized has always been framed and controlled through the process of framing, which requires the object to be mute, voiceless, non-speaking object of desire; sometimes referred to as the colonized native bodies.
During the time I was in Melbourne I accepted an invitation to attend an exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA). My friend, the writer, Jonathan Richie, invited me to accompany his wife, Catherine, and UPNG colleague, Philemon Yalamu, now a PhD student at the Swinburne University in Melbourne to attend “Australians in PNG” exhibition.
The photographic exhibition began on 12th August and will end on 08th October 2017. It is an exhibition that features the photographs of three Australians: Eric Bridgeman, Stephen Dupont, and Sonia Payes.
Bridgeman worked around the theme of “the fight” as in the tribal fights of Papua New Guinea: Bridgeman has both European and Melanesian heritage, and regularly travels to the Highlands of PNG to live with his extended family. Bridgeman used the postcolonial experience of hybridity to inform his work as a photographer.
Stephen Dupont’s exhibition is curated around the theme “Piksa Niugini”, which features deliberately framed photographs of Papua New Guineans in their work, play, and other social engagements. Most of the people who have their photographs taken are from settlements and other urban environments where many people are below the average socio-economic level.
Dupont is a celebrated international photojournalist who has spent intense periods of time documenting social life across PNG. His photographs occupy the central space of the museum.
Sonia Payes looks at the theme: “Terra mysteria”, featuring the natural environment and subterranean spaces in Papua New Guinea. Payes works with the natural wonders to create photography that is both surreal and abstract, achieving what only few photographers can achieve. Making the familiar become familiar, or the unfamiliar become familiar. Payes occupies the chamber next to the entrance, then followed by Dupont and Bridgeman.
According to Stephen Zagala, Senior Curator of the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) “These three exhibitions not only testify to the unique and vibrant land of PNG, but they also acknowledge the complexity and significance of Australia’s ongoing involvement with its closest neighbour.”
Beyond the scope of the exhibition, are important questions about whether or not ethnographic photography is relevant in a decolonized space. The politics of framing the experience of the other has been criticized for its Eurocentric mechanized worldview, which insists on freezing disappearing cultures, and preserving them for future purposes and posterity.
Another of this politics is about subjecting the bodies to produce knowledge for the gazer behind the camera. The knowledge enables the gazer to legitimate the relational values of each other. One is the wielder of power and the other is the site of knowledge production.
It was the most uncomfortable experience as a Papua New Guinea to attend the exhibition, as it unsettled me more than excite me. The exhibition opened from an unknown space (Terra mysteria) into the depressing Piksa Niugini space and tailing off with the fight gallery. A small space curated in the fight gallery featuring blood and gore in tribal fight situations. The images were very confronting, unsettling, and disturbing as they were framed for the photographers.
As much as I wanted to eject myself from the exhibition I could not because I was there also to listen to Lisa Hilli, fellow Papua New Guinean resident in Melbourne and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre. Lisa Hilli spoke passionately about how she has documented and brought back from archives of memory a special Tolai head adornment.
Lisa Hilli and Dr. Sharon Huebner did well in their presentations, unfortunately the curating of the conversation, turned its back on a broader conversation.
I was also very uncomfortable with the way in which Papua New Guineans were framed, photographed, and exhibited as objects of curiosity in this exhibition.
The critical eye, we as Papua New Guineans, bring to this museum space, tells us that it is wrong to perpetuate a myth of noble savages, unchanging cultures, and profiling native people’s through a western frame of reference.
I comforted myself with the thoughts that perhaps those who volunteered to have their photographs taken against a white cloth backdrop did it because it was their way of laughing at the cameraman. If they were not laughing they were clowning around to impress the photographer who did not understand them, their cultural peculiarities, and their way of life.
Modern Papua New Guineans take photographs of each other, but they do not frame, package, and curate each other in museum spaces. It is a temporal experience for Papua New Guineans to take photographs of each other rather than staging the experience in a permanent way or in other people’s frame.
Taking a picture of someone is like stealing the soul of a person. This idea has found some currency in the negative practice of sorcery in Papua New Guinea. Mobile technologies have contributed immensely to this emerging debate on stealing someone’s soul and using that in sorcery.
The discomfort I have with the exhibition may have something to do with my over-reading of the exhibition.
How PNG is framed 42 years after Independence makes a lot of difference to me.
The platform of mutual respect, understanding, and commitment to know each other on people to people level must be observed all the time.
The relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is unique. Many of us operating in this space of friendship are cautious with how this relationship is entrenched in our psychology.
By STEVEN WINDUO