“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.
By Dr ANDREW MOUTU
HE came to Ludwig and his wife Painari Kambe on April 9, 1936 in Matupit in 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. On his debut, the Tolai bestowed on him the name ToPalangat which translates into an idea of firmness and clear road and a pathway. It seems as though the ideas of width and breadth, meanders and corridors, origins and destinations were already there in anticipation of a journey to create a national destiny.
On the eve of the Second World War, the young Michael, had been taken back home to the littoral world of his 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 primary school in Boram. Then from Wewak he went back further to the east to receive high school education in Dregerhaffen where he was exposed to the people 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 in teaching 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 to Wewak and served as a broadcaster.
His journalism gave 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 superiors became apprehensive of his activism. To pacify him, they organized a calculated 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 to attain self-government and independence for Papua and New Guinea. In the following year in 1968, two great Sepik leaders of the Araphesh stock, Pita Simogun and Pita Lus, convinced and passed on to him the spears of leadership and to dream of a nation with a path to independence.
By then his own father, Ludwig Sana, had retired and returned 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 returned home to his Karau village in 1973 to be fully initiated into 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 institutionalized in ritual procedures and operationalized in a personal way. It was as if peace is likened to gold, this has to be condensed through a process of close interactions and refinements as though it were a therapeutic alchemy.
This was manifested in the style of politics from his heydays to his decline: 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 so they could exercise their interests and aspirations. It is in knowing them that you can work with them in a productive politics of mutual engagement. It was 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 the 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 endeavors. With viscid stews and brittle skins of slag, artists use pigments made from fluids mixed together with powdered stones to give them colour.
If ceramic experts of Kainantu, Makham or Aibom use watery mud (clay) and heat to make their pots then oily mud is the comparable medium with 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 façade of our national parliament building 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 difference and diversity into unity? Synesthesia, empathy and sympathy, immersion and performance, the embodied encounters of an art experience as much as to politics.
What is the character and quality of the materials we are now using to build on from the legacy of the 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!
- Andrew Moutu is the Director of the National Museum & Art Gallery