Beier a cultural pro and a genius

Letters, Normal

The National, Tuesday, May 3, 2011

PROF Ulli Beier was indirectly involved in the origins of the Raun Raun Theatre in Papua New Guinea when he recommended in 1974 that a theatre company could grow from the new Maket Raun initiative in the highlands. 
I started Raun Raun Theatre a year later and was its director for the first 10 years.
Although the Maket Raun idea was short-lived, the Raun Raun Theatre blossomed into a national (and international) theatre of distinction.
For his second stint in PNG from 1974-78, Ulli was director of the new Institute of Papua New Guinea Stu­dies which he founded. 
He was, therefore, a member of the National Cultural Council and, given his extraordinary personality, a po­werful one. 
He could have supported the Raun Raun Theatre for the first few years of its life directly and indirectly.
Apart from an incredibly productive time in PNG with institutional and programme development, literature, film, theatre and art which other­s have written about accurately, there were, to me, three special things about Ulli amongst his many other qualities and achievements, his formidable intellect and his cultural knowledge.
He had a genius for recognising creativity in people, no matter what form that took and no matter where it was. 
I went with him once to some villages on the Sonofi road in Eastern Highlands where he interviewed artists who were carving colourful birds and mounting them on the gables of their houses. 
While I was not that involved, his fascination and admiration for this new (or old) art was very obvious.
He often travelled around the country, observing and researching this way.
Ulli was also a practical and active market man, whether this was in Onitsha in Nigeria, PNG or Sydney and whether this was the publishing market, art market, art exhibitions, musical production or theatre promotion. 
Raun Raun Theatre experienced this in 1978 when it was invited to New York to perform at a PNG exhibition there. 
Ulli and his family had just left PNG for Sydney. 
Why not a performance in Sydney on the way through? he said.   
He and his wife Georgina organised and publicised a performance by the company at the prestigious Seymour Centre. 
It was cultural promotion at its professional best.
The other great quality he had was inspiration. 
He could encourage people to believe they really had something to say. 
He said to me on another occasion that he appreciated it was difficult for Papua New Guineans to believe in themselves at that time because of what might be called a colonial repression of confidence and imagination. 
But he certainly managed to inspire many Papua New Guineans to create in whatever field of
contemporary art that might be – John Kasaipwalova, Arthur Jawo­dimba­ri, William Takaku, Albert Toro, John Kolia, Ruki Fame and Jakupa – to mention some artists that I knew. 
In fact, it was Ulli who first told me that the first of these had written a long poem called Sail the Midnight Sun while he was wrongfully detained at Bomana prison. 
Both the Raun Raun Theatre and Sail the Midnight Sun are now sy­nonymous, of course, and Ulli still hovered in the background as he did in many other academic, literary and artistic spaces in Papua New Guinea.


Dr Greg Murphy
Via email