The spirit within



MY last attempt at interpreting art was as a university student critiquing the work of the French post-impressionist artist, Paul Gauguin.
Gauguin, I remember writing at the time, expressed his art using women as an analogy – alluring, vulnerable and subjugated images of Polynesian women that mirrored the political playout in the Pacific at the time – the beautiful, exotic and romantic part of the world that was being ‘colonised’.
More than a century later, the Pacific is scattered (pun intended) with historians recording through art.
If given the choice, I would avoid art but migration stirs a level of discernment – because we are educated and the more cultured we become, naturally we progress to learning about the arts of a country that intrigues.
Art is deep, it requires you to feel in order to eloquently interpret a ‘piece of work’.
Recently, I sat with PNG’s immensely talented Jeffry Feeger to gauge my feelings about the ‘Spirit Within’, a collection of works by a group of friends who belong to the Renbo Gallery; Leonard Tebegetu, Wesevo, Feeger, Lesley Wengembo and Phillip Wesley.
If we are to consider the part Italians played in the evolution of art, it was an appropriate coincidence that Sogno Italian Restaurant helped the Renbo Gallery artists find an intimate space in Harbourside to exhibit their work.
“It was just a case of saying, hi Dinesh (Sogno part owner) look, you know we want to put on a show, do you think you can help us out with a venue? Because he knows that people in Moresby who don’t have many options for entertainment are looking for something different.”
I found it refreshing that somewhere along the corridors of Port Moresby, many like me and more so the people of PNG had the opportunity to view such magnificent pieces.
As Feeger aptly explains, “because of my experience of exhibiting overseas, I had that sense that we deserve to have our paintings up on the wall.”
Feeger describes himself as a child of Gulf Province, from Malalawa station to be exact. His dad was a German who came to PNG as a volunteer.
Feeger senior was a fresh graduate armed with a Degree in Chemical Engineering, he found two passions in Gulf; the love of his life and mother to six sons AND teaching.
“Because I’d always been under the wing of my father. He’s German, very disciplined, very analytical minded person. He wrote the curriculum in PNG for mathematics and chemistry so he wasn’t really an artist.”
Jeffry’s older brother, also an artist, inspired him to pursue his love for art. Much earlier on in life, Feeger demonstrated his interest through scribbling.
“I’ve always liked drawing. I credit my father because my earliest memories are of scribbling. He always brought home scrap-paper from schools where he was teaching and we would just scribble. When I went into primary school, I remember in Grade one, my teacher smacking me on the hand saying don’t scribble in your books but I couldn’t help it because that’s what I loved doing. I always had this joy of drawing and creating.”
Feeger’s interest in art did not decline, but instead prospered in high school teacher.
“It was not until high school that my teacher saw that I had some talent and actually gave me an award and said “you’re good.” My friends always said I was an artist. I never really thought that I’d have some potential in it, but she encouraged me and even offered after school classes just to experiment and paint. I really developed the skills. By the time I graduated I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was to be an artist.”
It immediately strikes you when you walked into ‘The Spirit Within’ exhibition, the works were vastly different from that of art so easily acquired on the streets of Port Moresby.
“A lot of what’s seen (on the streets and in markets) is heavily influenced by the work of pioneering contemporary artists who delved into what was described as a naive style where there wasn’t much training for the artists. So expressions are very raw and described as naive in terms of the technical aspect.”
The like-minded artists of the Renbo Gallery have been painting together for years, influencing each other’s work and inspiring one another.
“You can see that although there is quite a diverse range of work, we all share similar philosophies about art and we all like to celebrate life around us and our own personal stories. We’re not so much dictated by the day to day struggle of making a living with the art, because we are not out on the street selling the work.
Feeger said the manner in which ‘common art’ is displayed in the hot sun and on the ground devalues the work of an artist.
“I understand it does serve a purpose but it only can help the artist to a certain level. That artist is never going to push the prices any higher because of having the work on the ground. You cannot build the name and the reputation of the artist if it’s continuously displayed and sold in that manner.
“We want to value our work in the grands, we don’t want to be selling it at hundreds because we feel we can match the quality of great works of art overseas. We also command that kind of attention.”
If art imitates life, so did the sketches captured in the various works that were exhibited. The friends who make up Renbo Gallery capture people in ‘their everyday’.
Like Feeger, his fellow artists seek sincerity and authenticity in their work.
“It’s very difficult for me to try and create something I don’t know about or not genuine to me, so if it’s an everyday scene of the environment or the community I live in, I’ll appreciate it a lot more and it will reflect in the work that I create. I may have more structured discipline to some of my work but that’s being moulded through my experiences.”
Artists, I believe own a level of creativity that should not be ‘colonised’ in classrooms, and Feeger’s choice not to conform holds true to this.
“I pulled out (from UPNG) after the first year because I didn’t feel like I was benefiting as much and I wanted to. I was eager to get out there, learn on my own and sell my work, make a career out of it.”
Since marrying in 2004, family has taught him discipline, he has not shied away from painting his family; his wife, his muse for 12 years.
“I can paint my partner, I can paint my children. I already have an intimate connection (with them) which is interesting as well. Of course there’s all the domestic dynamics and politics that goes with that. I try to (paint family) every day. I try to, because, that’s my reality, that’s how I am sincere with my art, to paint those around me.”
The challenges for artists, Feeger says, are finding a permanent gallery.
“In our case I believe Moresby is booming with opportunities. Although it’s an oppressive environment because daily you’re confronted with violence, you’re always concerned about your safety, people are looking for relief from that oppression and so they give you all the chances to succeed if you knock on the right doors.”
On the day I sat down for an interview with him, I found Feeger huddled over a painting of a woman looking out to sea. He explained, “This is my wife and she is looking out to sea because I have gone ‘fishing’.”
When Feeger isn’t away ‘fishing’, one would most likely find him in his island home of Alotau either painting under the trees or watching his four sons scribble – true to his spirit within.

  •  Cheerieann Wilson is a news trainer at ClickTV and a voluntary contributing writer.