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Preserving the traditional ways through a camera lens

Weekender

By TABITHA NERO
CULTURE evolves, and so long as people relate to each other and find new ways to improve life, culture will always change.
The statement was made by Wylda Bayron, a world renowned photographer of indigenous cultures around the world. With her passion to learn about indigenous cultures around the world she came across Papua New Guinea. So began a quest to document the rich cultures of this country. She photographed almost all the different bilas (cultural dress) of our 22 provinces and made important observations between her own native Puerto Rico and Papua New Guinea, and told the story of how her journey of learning cultures began back in her country.
“I always wanted to learn how to make movies and tell stories with visuals and there was no film industry in my country so I had to go to the United States to learn how to do that,”
Bayron attended Syracuse University in New York but she wouldn’t disclose the year she completed her studies. “According to my custom, for a woman to remain young and beautiful she must not say her age,” she said with a smile.
“In the process of learning I was sent out by my professors to shoot movies so I started to get a taste of travel, also my best friend is from Japan and he took me to his country to shoot a movie and from there I got a taste of shooting different cultures,” Bayron said.
And this was the beginning of her passion to take photographs and preserve cultures. To fulfill this dream, she travelled widely; from the Americas to India to most parts of Asia and finally to Papua New Guinea, a destination of cultures.
“I focused on getting the traditional dress from different cultures because I think it’s very interesting that people don’t just put things on themselves when they want to but they source it from their environment, if you have palm trees you are probably going to wear that,” Bayron said.
She described herself as an ethnographer and an anthropologist at heart and the passion and hunger to learn about different cultures began when she began to learn about her own culture through books.
“I learned about my culture and my people through illustrations and books because they were no longer there so I grew up always wanting to connect with my past and so coming to PNG was sort of like a full circle for me, because of our similarities.
“Puerto Rico is also a small island in the Carribean, we have kulau, palm trees, everything much like Hanuabada (Port Moresby) or like the Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay), so coming here made sense to me, I felt at home and I kinda look like Motu (a Motuan) so it was an easy transition for me.”
In PNG, she observed that some cultures are uniquely distinct from one another and are very much very still living off the land and not within the reach of technology and modern conveniences.   For Bayron, PNG’s 800 languages and cultures is a treasure worth preserving. She first came to this country as tourist in 2013 and little did she know that she would  be taking part in the grassroots preservation project conducted by the National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG).
“Because of my interest in anthropology and ethnography I decided there is no place more rich than PNG and I came here as a tourist, to learn about cultures and the project found me.
“I was offered food, shelter and invited to document cultures.”
While on that sojourn, she noticed that PNG was at a crossroad and faced with the grave question of whether or not to preserve its different and distinct traditional cultures.
“They (NMAG) realised that they were in this tricky situation that if they do nothing to document culture then all will be lost.”
Bayron initially agreed to work on the project on a two-month stint but ended up spending a year and a half in the country.
“I wanted to live with the villagers and see what it was like. I loved it but was difficult, at some places it was sago for breakfast, lunch and dinner and we had to walk long distances and carry equipment and organise photo shoots.
“It was quite tiring but very exciting because everywhere you go from the New Guinea Islands to the Trobriands, deep in the Sepik and in the mountains there is culture with incredibly beautiful people who are very welcoming.
“So every few weeks I stayed with a new family, different food, different bilas and it was exciting.”
She moved around those different communities, armed only with a very limited grasp of Tok Pisin and the heart to meet people and learn.
“I was moving and everyone was staying and taking me in, I didn’t have security, I didn’t have people with me all the time. There were a few safety issues but once I found wantoks and once I was with a community there were no issues. The people were friendly and curious.
“If you come here and go to the wrong places, wrong things will happen, but if you stay with the people you will be fine. The project was done by the people, they curated it they are the experts, they showed me their bilas. I brought my artistry, curiosity and my camera to the project and they brought thousands of years of history.”
While describing the different traditional dress and decorations, she was alarmed to note that parts of the original traditional bilas in many communities were being abandoned and replaced with modern materials.
“For the purpose of preservation I didn’t change the bias, I said try to make it as close to tumbuna.
“There is a variety in traditional clothing, in the highlands for example, they use a lot of white man’s paint so their bilas is ultra-contemporary, not as traditional, but also beautiful.
“I also wanted to document the changes technology and modern world is bringing to the traditional way of bilas.”
Bayron also spoke of the culture in her country.
“In Puerto Rico we have four cultures that come together; the native Taino Arawak Indians, the Spanish conquistadors who came in the 1500s, they brought with them African slaves, and we are close to the US so we have four cultures, not 800.
“What really is still prevalent in my culture is the African drumming, we use it like the kundu, but the girls wear all white, with one colour and a stripe of red or green, and the boys would wear all white, with one colour either red or any colour, and you would know your partner by just looking at the colour that matches yours.
“The drummer beats to the movement of the dancer, so it’s a good challenge.”
Like anyone else who visits abroad, she misses home but is keen on completing what she came to do.  She is finishing a book about her travels in PNG, called Alive.
“Em ples blong mi (this is my home), she concludes, in her newfound language.

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