Melanesia is said by many to be the last frontier, when it comes to culture. Ancient traditional dances, practices and “kustom” remain commonplace, and alive in this part of the world.
It’s something that must not be taken for granted, according to Papua New Guinea Foreign Affairs Minister Rimbink Pato.
As the fifth Melanesia Arts and Culture Festival began during the weekend in Port Moresby, he speaks at functions and on television and radio about preservation and promotion of culture and identity in a world that is fast becoming subsumed by a global consumer culture.
It is a theme of many of the official speeches here, cultural erosion – and, equally as poignant, how people can benefit economically from their own cultures and traditions.
Indeed the challenge and the opportunity for these remote and mysterious islands, is how to preserve culture and promote it in a way that financially benefits the people; this, a region with a history of colonialisation and exploitation of natural resources at the hands of foreigners and the arts sectors here want to avoid the same happening to their cultural treasures.
The Festival is colourful, entertaining and vibrant, however it is also a vital meeting of minds, as Pacific countries urgently grapple with issues over protection of cultural intellectual property, maintenance of culture and kustom in a global economy, cultural tourism and under representation of women at decision-making levels in cultures often steeped in patriarchy.
It was historic, then, that for the first time at an international gathering, the 168–strong Solomon Islands contingent had both women and men present gifts on behalf of the Solomon people to the people of PNG.
Women from the group dressed in traditional costumes of each of their provinces gifted long strings of shell money to the Govenor General at the public opening ceremony at the national stadium, while the men’s pan flute band performed.
Until now, only the men have performed internationally ; involvement of the women suggests a shift in thinking by the Solomons Government as it seeks to represent itself in a more politically acceptable light internationally, showing that women do have a presence and a voice in Solomon society.
The Solomon Islands Government, which funded the group’s participation, has not shied away from the sensitive material which the theatre group explores – domestic violence, for which the Pacific has the worst statistics globally according to United Nations reports – and empowerment of women.
Within the Pacific region, women are under-represented in leadership roles with women’s participation and representation in parliament being the lowest of any region of the world.
The British Council project is delivered with SIPPA, funded by the European Union, and is led artistically by Fiji-New Zealander Nina Nawalowalo, from the Conch Theatre in Wellington.
“It’s such a privilege to be here with these Solomon Island women, most of whom have never travelled internationally, and see them take centre stage before thousands of people to officially present the gifts from their country.
“It was truly an historic moment, that we hope marks a new era in women’s visibility both in the arts sector but also in decicion-making at every level : family, community and politically,” she said.
The women will perform their show six times at three venues over the coming fortnight.
The deputy director of the culture division of the culture and yourism ministry, Dennis Marita, said this year they want more attention for the rarer aspects of Solomon Islands culture, like the Santa Cruz Nelo dancers.
“We just wish to put more emphasis on this particular culture, in terms of the costume, dancers and of course the language that they speak is quite unique and I think that’s something that will be new for this festival,” he said.
Mr Marita said after hosting the Festival of Pacific Arts a couple of years ago, a lot more people, including the government, are recognising the positive impact of such events.
“It has helped to transform our society from one particular stage to the other, not only in terms of the economy, not only in terms of people’s understanding and appreciation for the potential and the values and importance of cultures and arts, but also in terms of people’s nature and attitude.”
Another historic element of this year’s festival is the involvement, for the first time, of Indonesia, after years of restricted access between the two provinces due to Indonesian sensitivities regarding the suppression of Papuan nationalism.
Torres Strait of Australia and Timor Leste are also attending, as a means of strengthening Melanesia’s efforts to avoid cultural erosion, according to the festival Chairman Dr Jacob Simet.
Nowhere is there more diversity in culture and language than in Melanesia: Papua New Guinea alone has 856 distinctly different languages among its seven million people.
By Ingrid Leary