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Up the Sepik River, a unique PNG Journey.

This project began when the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (MOA) received a bequest of 13 contemporary carvings from the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. The donor Neil Cole had been acquiring works from Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria for a few years, and when he sought owner, Elaine Monds' advice about bequeathing these outstanding works to a suitable institution, she recommended MOA. Neil's death was very sad and sudden--so sudden, in fact that two of his most recent purchases were still at Alcheringa awaiting shipping!

MOA is honoured to receive this collection because it, together with other works acquired over the past 10 years, has to the best of my knowledge, moved our museum into the unique position of being home to the finest collection of PNG contemporary arts in North America.


I was first introduced to contemporary Sepik works in 2006 when I accompanied Elaine on a trip to the Sepik. She was there to purchase works for her gallery and to participate in the making of the film "Killer Whale and Crocodile" which told the story of the development of a great friendship between a First Nation Northwest Coast artist, John Marston, and a PNG artist, Teddy Balangu of Palembei. My role during the 2006 trip was to arrange for Teddy to visit MOA on an Andrew Fellowship, and also do some linguistic research associated with our collection. I never intended to be involved with the film - but the filmmakers found my work interesting enough to include me.

The director of MOA had assigned a small budget to purchase some works--although I must say collecting was not high on my priority list. That is, until I had the opportunity to view the carvings that had been made in anticipation of Elaine's visit. What became clear to me was not only the important role she had been playing for some years as a promoter and supporter of this quite incredible art but also as an advisor to the carvers--helping them develop their work to a standard suitable for the international market. One way was by bringing tools such as chisels to help them achieve finer work. Needless to say I purchased carvings to the limit of my allowance!


I returned to the Sepik with Elaine in 2008 and again acquired pieces for MOA. By this time I had developed quite an affinity for the art of Papua New Guinea--art that I now believe is equal to that produced by the other two great active carving traditions: The First Nations of the Northwest Coast and the Maori of New Zealand (Aotearoa). Many of the works acquired during these two trips are now on display at MOA, as are amazing works created by John Marston and Teddy Balangu.

On both these trips we were accompanied by Dan Lepsoe who worked closely with Elaine, carefully recording artists and their stories. Villagers thought of him as Elaine's son, and it was heartwarming to see signs at village entrances welcoming them both. I took my son on the 2008 trip and it was a life altering experience for him. I recall Elaine saying during this last trip, "this is my home"--and I truly believe it is.


Our 2015 Journey

This trip was very different for Elaine. She was not on a buying trip per se, although she did purchase some carvings, rather she was under contract with UBC to organise our foray up the river as part of the preparation for an exhibition "In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man: Contemporary Arts of the Sepik river, Papua New Guinea." (See exhibition announcement, pagel 9). As always, she was enthusiastically greeted by all she met, and there were even some who recognized me from previous trips. For me it was the reconnection with Claytus Yambon and Teddy Balangu that was so wonderful. Both these gentlemen have been to Vancouver (Teddy for 5 months at MOA) and stayed at my house with my family... just as I have stayed at their houses with their families. Very important.

I brought MOA's exhibit designer and videographer, Skooker Broome, along because I believe you can never really portray PNG unless you have been there to experience the colours, the smells, the textures, and the light. His work will be an important element of the exhibition as well as valuable documentation for future researchers.

As an element of MOA's community outreach, Elaine negotiated with Claytus Yambon in the village of Korogo to facilitate a Mwai ceremony during our time there. I had requested funds from MOA to support this ceremony - considered to be of some importance to the village. The Mwai ceremony was filmed for integration into the exhibition and Claytus gave us the cultural background for the event.

Elaine also organised food and supplies and worked with Claytus to arrange transportation, canoe rental, outboard motor rental, canoe emergency supplies, hiring of crew and helpers, transportation for crew, village accommodation and meals, emergency supplies, and meeting the artists. All a formidable task accomplished in 21st century style with advance cell phone communication!

During our eight days in the region, I interviewed 14 artists. I also acquired works from numerous women artists including 100 woven flying foxes, bilums and some carvings. My journals are bursting with detail, and throughout our journey, Skooker filmed pretty much everything he could--the river, the land, the colours, the interviews, the canoes, the people, the ceremonies.



Many people we met spoke of the Malaysians "taking trees down river'; and about the Frieda River open pit mine under construction upriver. There was a sense of helplessness, of inevitability, about these activities and the inescapability of the environmental challenges they will bring to the Sepik way of life. These are dynamic cultures that are used to adapting to a changing world, but one is left to wonder whether they will be able to adapt to a world that is consciously being altered by man rather than nature.

On this trip, I was also working with Woodshole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Massachusetts, USA. It is conducting a worldwide research project, "River Quest" that aims to sample the world's rivers to assess the planet's health. I believe one of the ways we can bring global attention to the logging and mining activities on the Sepik is to include the Sepik as a test site so that whatever happens there has the potential of being known internationally. WHOI had not included the Sepik because they could not locate anybody 'on the ground' to do the sampling, but fortunately I was introduced to Lukas Kou, an active environmentalist in the area. He has agreed to work with WHOI and hopefully become their 'man on the Sepik'.

August 29, 2015

At Last, we're Leaving for the river--but not with great speed. First we go to downtown Wewak to buy Chinese medicine, milk, pork and attempt (again) to obtain money from the ATM machines. we pick up the truck and we are on the road--about three and a half hours of bumping along, bouncing from pothole to pothole, and stopping for snacks at roadside markets.

Upon reaching Pagwi, we discovered there was no gas for the canoe so Claytus had to buy a small canister of gas in order to get across the river to actually buy the Large canisters for the trip to his village. Eventually all was connected and off we went. well, not quite! The engine stopped and we floated for a while. Then Claytus changed the spark plug, and off we went, only to stop again and float for a while Longer until his determined efforts with the engine paid off.


Eventually we made it to Korogo and there was the Lovely Esther (Claytus's wife) waiting for us with a big smile. We struggled up the bank with all our Luggage and supplies and settled into the small guest house Claytus had built for Elaine for her previous trip. it had three rooms, one for Skooker, one for Elaine and me, and a centre one for supplies. Teddy brought two buckets of water from the river for wonderfully cool and refreshing. We sat around chatting until we realized we were hungry and asked Claytus when dinner was going to happen. "it was ready an hour ago," says he. "we are waiting for you." we rolled out the plastic tablecloth on the veranda floor and tucked into a dinner of river fish, yams, sweet potatoes, rice, and greens. Slept Like a baby.

Dr Carol E. Mayer is Head of the Curatorial/Interpretation Department of the University of British Columbia's world-renowned Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Besides being an eminent scholar with considerable understanding of South Pacific cultures, she has served on the Board of PPP for six years.
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Author:Mayer, Carol E.
Publication:Tok Blong Pasifik
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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