Designers of our symbol of unity


I SCOURED the internet looking for tributes of Susan Karike and found many on Facebook. There were beautifully written comments acknowledging her ingenuity and the contribution towards nation building. Some demanded that she be given a state funeral to see her off in a well-deserved and honourable way.
For someone who designed the flag of Papua New Guinea, I imagined she must have lived on a special government pension till her last day. Sadly enough that was not the case. An article on Loop PNG and shared on Facebook stated that Karike lived her last days in a settlement in Laloki, just outside Port Moresby. With the help of her cousin she started to seek government recognition back in 2000. She even went on air on FM 100’s Talkback Show in 2010 but despite these attempts she was still ignored.
It is troubling to imagine that someone of such significance to our nation could be discounted in this manner. At least a lifetime fortnightly allowance of a considerable amount of money would not have dented our country’s economy. But alas, that was not to be the case until she passed away last week.
In the same week as the passing of Karike another PNG icon from the same era was making an exit. Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare retired from active politics after 49 years as a member of parliament, a great achievement indeed and testament to his remarkable leadership.
As I stood on that rainy day to witness the Grand Chief’s farewell speech at Sir Hubert Murray Stadium, the very grounds he first raised the flag of an independent Papua New Guinean, I felt a sense of pride and nationalism and thought of the various pre-independence writers such as John Kasipwalova, Kumalau Tawali and others who wrote with such a tremendous nationalistic and patriotic sense.
What struck me hard was the realisation that this Independent State of PNG has failed to honour Karike for her effort in nation building. Sir Michael stated before his speech “Mi laik toktok taim rain sa stop but nau em i narakain.” I guess that was because nature was mourning another hero. The insignificant and unsung hero.
A line from a poem published on Facebook by amateur poet Wambiia Ketan on his wall and shared by others profoundly highlights Karike’s significant contribution. He wrote “She gave us the first symbol of unity”, that statement alone carries the weight of her contribution to the young nation of PNG. We are a nation so diverse in culture, language, ethnicity and environment, so much so that we are referred to at times as a nation of nations. Yet in our diversity our flag and its colours will forever stand as a unifying symbol till the end of time.
On the other hand, another contributor to the design of our country’s flag has never truly been heard of by the PNG populous. The late Hal Holman was tasked with putting together a design for the PNG Flag and Crest/Emblem by the Select Committee on Constitutional Development in 1970. This committee was chaired by late Dr John Guise.
According to Keith Jackson, Hal Holman was a renowned Australian artist – a painter and sculptor. He first came to PNG as a 20 year old in the Australian Infantry forces and fought in the Highlands and coastal areas of New Guinea. He returned home after the war and re-entered PNG in 1965 and worked as senior illustrator at the Department of Education. The following year he joined the Department of Information where he worked until he left government employment in the late 60s. His government career was brief but prolific.
The story of the design of the flag has however been controversial with many published articles telling different stories. But one that has the central events as they occurred is that published on the website ‘Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’. Written by Geoff Littler and titled “The Papua New Guinea Crest and Flag”.
Littler was an official member of the second house of assembly and at that time was appointed as the Deputy Chairman of the Select Committee. On their first tour of the country the committee was asked to gather flag designs from the people. There was great enthusiasm and many submissions were gathered and from these submissions the committee gathered the popular colours – gold, green and blue and the symbols – birds, drums, spears and stars.
This information was passed to Hal Holman, an artist with the Department of Information and Extension Services for him to design a crest and flag from these colours and symbols. Holman’s design was shown to the house of assembly on the 17th November 1970.
Holman’s design of the flag was a tricolour flag in green, gold and blue with the Southern Cross and a white Bird of Paradise.
The people were than introduced to the flag and crest designs in the January of the following year. The people generally accepted the design of the crest but were outspoken about the design of the flag. Then on their visit to Yule Island on 12th February 1971 where Susan Karike was a student at the Catholic Mission School, she produced a revamped design of the flag to Littler, drawn on a page taken from an exercise book. This had instant appeal and Littler immediately thought “this is the flag”.
The committee later met in Port Moresby on March 1 to consider its findings and Susan Karike’s design was chosen. She explained that she did not like the colours of the flag, they were not traditional and representative of PNG. Although her design was unique from that of Holman it still had the same components that Holman’s had. Therefore credit must also be given to Hal Holman for his input in the design of our PNG flag.
As Karike puts it in her artistic meaning of her design, the black background represents the darkness we were in before missionaries brought us to the light of the Gospel, the White southern cross stars represents a nation coming out of that darkness, the Red represents us covered by the blood of Jesus and the Yellow bird of paradise represents the Holy Spirit.
However Holman’s design of the national crest or emblem did get the committee’s approval and was adopted by the state of Papua New Guinea. His other famous works for PNG includes the one tonne steel sculpture of the PNG crest that dominates the façade of the Supreme Court building in Port Moresby, the eight meter high stainless steel Bird of Paradise situated on the roundabout adjacent to the parliament house and the bronze busts of PNG’s first 6 Prime Ministers. All six sculptures reside in the parliamentary gardens in Port Moresby.
For his efforts and contribution to Papua New Guinea, the government had honoured Holman in 2009 with the high award of Officer in the Order of Logohu.  Hal Holman and Susan Karike are the designers of our PNG flag. They have created this monumental symbol of unity that holds the diverse peoples of PNG together. Name tags and titles are just that, they deserved far more substantive recognition from the government. Karike spent her last days in a settlement. Holman spent his unbeknownst to the people of Papua New Guinea. Will their names be mentioned in PNG history classes or in songs and poems or will they fade further away from our history? Will sculptures be erected to remember these two unsung heroes?
RIP Mama and Papa PNG.

  • Lemach Lavari is a freelance writer.

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