- Living Art in Papua New Guinea by Susan Cochrane
Susan Cochrane is a rare enthusiast of oceanic arts, one who bridges diverse roles of collector, curator, conversationalist, and critical commentator on Pacific art, particularly that from Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. After thirty years of impressive travel in the region, giving papers across Oceania and beyond, and attempting the difficult feat of promoting the region’s culture to the world through hardcopy art publishing—readers may have come across her Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea (1997) or Bérétara (2001)—she has put together an online interactive compendium, Living Art in Papua New Guinea.
This e-book brings together materials going back to the 1950s from Cochrane’s own archive and that of her parents (links to these are in the book) with contemporary statements from artists, all of whom have actively participated in the project. A feature of the collection is that its electronic format allows the commonly seen static artworks to be complemented with moving images of their social context and with associated forms of performative art. Even among the former group, there are things such as large pots and [End Page 586] public sculptures that are not often seen outside of Papua New Guinea.
The design is a delight: landscape pages with lots of white space and text surrounded by lively images of birds, animals, and spirits, some familiar from the widely circulated styles of Akis and Kauage. The version I reviewed had a few photos strangely turned on their side, but that may well have been due to the format I was working with on a computer download. Many of the black-and-white photos are stunning for the events captured and for their rarity, irrespective of formatting.
The text includes links to clips and other information on topics such as “women in contemporary society,” “the Baining Fire Dance,” “carved canoes,” “the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art,” and “bamboo bands.” The volume also includes an impressive mix of essays, gallery catalogs, and YouTube clips. The author admits to her amateur status as a photographer and the spontaneous nature of some of the fieldwork clips, but regardless, they are all visually captivating and informative and suggestive of immense possibility for future works on Oceanic art to bridge the gaps between artists, collections, and audiences in homelands and abroad. One envisages more links being added in later editions. Her style is clear and personal—people-centered as well as descriptive of the works. Academics dedicated to a specific art form or region might want a bit more detail, but in a national survey like this, Cochrane covers major art areas and manages to pack in a good deal of information about each one. There is a bit more on the PNG Highlands and a bit less on the Sepik than might be expected through the first three-quarters of the book, but this is rebalanced with a “Sepik journey” toward the end, tracking movements from village production to global circulation.
The book is divided into three sections: a survey of “the Arts of Papua New Guinea”; “Kastom and Contemporary Culture,” covering artistic collaborative work, women’s creative work, natural resources, body art, singsing performances, and the spiritual as manifest in haus tambaran and haus lotu; and “Village-Urban-Global.” This last section marks a particular strength of the publication in that it deals with PNG art as a dynamic, living thing (sometimes a bit too dynamic, as seen in the painting of police chasing street art sellers away!), not something to be fixed in “authentic tradition” and abstracted away from lived contexts as objects for a gallery. There is a solid bibliography and a short glossary. For anyone wanting to introduce a friend or student to PNG art, this is definitely the book to go...