- Hailans to Ailans: Contemporary Art of Papua New Guinea
On 5 November 2009, the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, opened the art exhibition “Hailans to Ailans” (Tok Pisin for “Highlands to Islands”), kicking off a weeklong series of associated events throughout the city as well as in Vancouver. In all directions, the artwork filled every free space with organic vitality: a carved vessel for pushing through Pacific-fed waters; wood and reclaimed metal shaped into forests of sculptures and masks; purselike sacs recalling generations of women weaving fibers into the womb that sustains their culture; and framed lines, shapes, and figures telling stories of cultural negotiations and urban identities.
Curated by Dr Pamela Rosi and Dr Michael Mel, and produced in collaboration with the Alcheringa Gallery and the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, “Hailans to Ailans” was a two-part international exhibition that first premiered in September 2009 at the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery in London. In Victoria, part two included works by Papua New Guinean artists Teddy Balangu, Tom Deko, Kaua Gita, Cathy Kata, Michael Mel, Martin Morububuna, Bepi Pius, Lucas Tangun, Michael Timbin, Otto Timbin, and Claytus Yambon, as well as Coast Salish artists lessLIE (Leslie Sam) and John Marston. (Rosanna Raymond’s work had been included in part one in London.)
The significance of this exhibition was the joining of contemporary art made by indigenous peoples who historically had no connections with one another, yet whose cultures and art are all informed by their relationships to the Pacific and to the diverse lands and life that rise from it. In the exceptional catalog, Pamela Rosi indicates that cultural exchange between the artists was an important part of the exhibition (12). For years, Rosi, Mel, Hossack, and Alcheringa Gallery owner Elaine Monds have painstakingly brought global attention to Papua New Guinean art, lifting the artists out of anonymous obscurity. To this end, the PNG portion of “Hailans to Ailans” particularly highlighted the spectacular work of master carvers from villages along the Sepik River.
Among the many outstanding pieces, including those of Kaua Gita, Lucas Tangun, and Michael and Otto Timbin, Teddy Balangu’s striking sculpture Killer Whale and Crocodile II is important for its quality and complex composition (figure 1). It features a PNG man flanked by representations of Killer Whale (important for the Coast Salish people) and Crocodile (significant to Sepik River clans). Side by side, their positions suggest peace between them, a testament to Balangu’s respect for the Coast Salish and particularly his friendship with master carver John Marston. Marston’s 2006 PNG visit and collaborations with Balangu were the focus of a stunning 2007 documentary, also titled Killer Whale and Crocodile, by Gumboot Productions and Arthur Holbrook Productions. The film was looped continuously in the gallery throughout the exhibition, and a special screening of it was provided at the University of Victoria on 6 November 2009.
Since that PNG visit, Marston [End Page 480] often incorporates suns or moons in his carvings to communicate “sharing across . . . the Pacific,” as Elaine Monds states in the catalog (69). Marston’s mask titled New Moon is a superb example. Left unpainted, Marston subtracted shapes completely through its surface, leaving curvilinear triangles and new moon-like crescents of negative space. The overall effect suggests the highlights and shadows across the moon’s surface. Marston sanded the wood into an ultrasmooth yet non-glossy texture. Without enhancement, the pale yellow tones of the wood grain look bright, communicating the luminosity of his natural subject.
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Marston also collaborated with Claytus Yambon on a canoe that is still in progress in the gallery. Yambon has created a PNG exterior design that Marston will carve, and Marston will paint a Coast Salish design to cover the interior. In addition to the canoe, Yambon provided several sculptures for “Hailans to...