Bark cloths from New Guinea

The villages of the Omie are extremely remote. One has to go there to appreciate fully just how remote. Once made, the trek is not easily forgotten - as Drusilla Modjeska and David Baker will testify.

If you are reasonably fit, the journey is roughly nine hours of often gruelling walking. The famous Kokoda trail is not far off and the terrain quite similar. Very little of it is flat and the walk consists of seemingly endless ups and downs navigating narrow, slippery paths, fording fast flowing rivers and rock hopping along others. The way up requires holding-on to jungle trees and vines and the way down is often so steep it needs to be negotiated on backsides.

Relief from the heat and humidity is sought by dunking oneself in the rivers or creeks that wind through the valley floors although the Omie guides rarely broke a sweat and left this indulgence for their visitors. There is an airstrip near one of the villages but this has been out of service for many years. It is small wonder that when David Baker made the trip in 2002 he was one of the only white men to have visited in more than a decade.

How and why did this tribe of people find themselves in such a remote spot in the shadow of Mount Lamington, a volcano that blew its northern side away in 1951 causing more than 3,000 deaths? Fortunately for the Omie, whose villages are on the ridges to the south west of the summit, the volcano disgorged itself in the opposite direction and they were largely untouched by the steam, smoke, and lava. There are fewer than 2,000 Omie and from their language and art it appears that the tribe originally came from the south, across the Owen Stanley Mountains and descended as far as they could before being stopped by the Orokaivans. After negotiations punctuated by wars and violence they settled on the ridges where the several villages are now located. The villages are not unlike European hilltop towns, and command views that allow them to monitor any movement below.

Theirs is a siege mentality. Some of the villages are gated. Upon approach to a village one waits outside until the guides announce arrival and the village prepares a welcome. Once the gates are opened fierce looking warriors brandishing spears may greet the party. Once inside however the tone changes markedly and there are dancers in ceremonial dress, men beating kundos (ceremonial drums) and children running around to join in the excitement ? visitors are rare and their presence a major event.
There is a greeting line as well as a farewell line during these visits that sometimes extends up to 100 metres in length.

The very existence of these people seems precarious. Their physical surroundings are a constant reminder of the vigilance they maintain. There are spectacular views from the villages with both the threat and majesty of Mount Lamington (1,680meters) looming tall over them. Simple tasks such as fetching water require a significant trek down to the valley floors where the creeks and streams run. The vegetables that they grow are also situated further down the hillsides. It is hot and humid during the day, punctuated by downpours, and foggy and chilly at night. Perched as they are on the top of ridges, there is a vertiginous feeling of danger. It is as if they have not so much chosen a site as taken a last stand.

Their language and customs are quite different from their neighbours below. The threat from these neighbours has, for centuries been very real. Raiding parties and armed confrontation has interrupted periods of peace. There are still serious border disputes and a man died in a fight with the then manager of Omie Nemiss at the border just a couple of years ago. The Omie were contained and confined to the hilltop villages where they remain and they learned how to organize their lives and culture within those parameters. Today, although the vigilance remains and venturing beyond a certain point remains dangerous, their isolation is more economic than social. The Orokaivans are the dominant force in Oro province and government funds and support stop with them. The Omie have to be largely self-sufficient, receiving almost nothing from the provincial or government authorities. Cooking utensils, and staples such as salt or sugar are all luxuries ? as becomes apparent to any visitor who shares their meals. The seeming inconsequential loss of a pinch of salt or some soy sauce on the trek in takes on great significance during a lunch or dinner with the Omie!

Theirs is a life therefore immersed in the present. Survival is a daily routine of procuring and maintaining the sources of things we take for granted such as food and water.

The beating heart of nature is ever present and embraced out of necessity. Like the Australian Aboriginals, there is a Christian element that is woven into their animist beliefs and traditions. The subject matter of their art is the natural world around them and their all-important relationship with it.

They are a very social people and love to make music. At night the dancing and singing often go on into the small hours of the morning. Isolation makes music and art crucial to their social fabric.

But what is extraordinary about the Omie, and what sets them apart is their art. Why does it exist in such contrast to other peoples and tribes who live nearby? Many of the valley tribes also make art but nothing like what we see from the Omie. The work is stunningly beautiful and entirely unique ? there is nothing like it in the outside world, nor is there anything similar in any other area of Papua New Guinea.

The Omie work on barkcloth made by female chiefs although the society is not strictly speaking matriarchal. It is a utilitarian art in that the barkcloth is also used in everyday life. Both men and women use them as wraps for clothing and visitors are offered them as blankets for sleeping. While used in ceremony the cloths are also used as decoration in their homes as room dividers laid over sitting or sleeping areas and hung on the walls for ambience. The art surrounds them just as the nature and stories they depict are all around them. The women who make the art go through a rigorous apprenticeship that lasts for years before they are allowed to depict the stories and motifs that are the subject matter of the work. Once they achieve the right to make the work, different artists express themselves according to their own style. Therefore, many for example share for example a mythical tree frog or spider story. Unlike the Australian Aboriginals who often depict a specific dreaming (i.e. ?source of fire? by Djambawa Marawili that tells the story of how ?Baru? a mythical being from the dreamtime turns into a crocodile) which a certain artist has exclusive rights to according to his or her personal dreaming (origins) and clan lines, all the artists who have achieved the appropriate level are able to depict the stories or subject matter as they see fit. Therefore, there is plenty of room for personal expression, emotion and interpretation through the colour and composition.

In this exhibition of Omie artwork there is a marked difference to some of the work that we have not seen before. The use of collage overlays which are stitched on the surface separate to the original support, some minimal pieces using only support for form and colour and added elements mostly in dark, muted colours are some examples of the changes. The important thing to note is that the art is a living and breathing art, constantly evolving. The cooperative that was set up in 2002 with the help of David Baker and Drusilla Modjeska and the subsequent exhibition at Annandale Galleries has clearly been a catalyst for change. While pieces may have found their way out in the past - sold in Port Moresby and beyond as far back as the 1950?s - there has never been an organized attempt to get the work out to the world or exhibitions in any regular manner.

How does this affect the work ? this interaction between the source of the art and the western aesthetic taste and market influence?

Obviously the artists are now aware that the work is going to be seen by us and purists may argue that this changes the dynamic. Simply by the curatorial choices we make we are perhaps affecting the art. Obviously, we encourage work that the market is embracing. Does this ?water down? the effect of the art? I think not. Whether we are talking about artists from 16th century Italy, contemporary video artists or Australian Aboriginals, market forces and patrons have always played their part in artistic output. In the case of the Omie, who have very few options from an economic standpoint, the exhibitions we have mounted here are a positive thing that has provided them with a crucial income stream. As a result they are concentrating and allotting more time and effort to their art than before. The prospect of a wider audience encourages the artists to create more work, but also to maintain their artistic standards. The knowledge that the work will be seen in Australia, and even in London and New York, is more inspiration than cultural interference. They share their work and their beliefs with us with an ever-increasing pride. They want us to understand some of what they understand, to believe in what they believe and know to be true about nature.

The response to our first exhibition in 2006 was extraordinary. Over twenty works have gone into the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery. A full exhibition of over fifty pieces will open in November at the National Gallery of Victoria at the St. Kilda Road building. To help facilitate this exhibition, two of the artists, Dapeni Jonevari and Pauline Rose Hago, will be in Sydney for the opening and also to do some work ?in situ? for the video cameras with the results to be screened during the NGV show.

I would like to thank David Baker, the curator of the exhibition for his tireless work on behalf of the Omie people. His work has made this exhibition possible, and it is satisfying and exciting to see this extraordinary art be embraced by the outside world. We are very lucky to have the two visiting artists mentioned above; my thanks go out to them for making the effort to attend. I also want to thank author Drusilla Modjeska, currently finishing a novel set in New Guinea, who wrote the essay in our catalogue in 2006, visited the Omie villages with David Baker in 2004, and who helped him to set up the artists cooperative. I am grateful to Judith Ryan of the NGV for her essay in this catalogue, her enthusiasm for the Omie projects and crucial insight into the work. All these efforts, on behalf of the Omie people and their spectacular art, will culminate in the forthcoming landmark exhibition, curated by Judith Ryan, at the National Gallery of Victoria opening November 27th 2009.

Bill Gregory, Sydney, May 2009


Bark cloths from New Guinea
1 July - 8 Aug 2009

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