© Rangihīroa Panoho, 2020/2021. No part of this document (text or imagery) is free to be copied, plagiarised or shared for publication or for uses neither intended nor agreed on by the author without his express permission. The opinions expressed are those of Dr Panoho and not those of former employers or industry colleagues. Details for writing to the author are as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org
I WAS BORN IN PARADISE Niuean painter/poet John Pule once began a poem, at an exhibition opening I helped organise. Pule was talking about his home village Liku on the remote Pacific island of Nuie. Recently in an archive of photographs I discovered my own beginnings in an equally remote area of the Pacific. The image showed my parents and I on the Northern coast of Papua New Guinea at Moem beach at Wewak, the main port of entry into the Western Sepik. The picture featuring locals with outriggers is also shot in Wewak. My entry point to this thinking about beginnings and arcadia (as sometimes is the case) was a plant. I was busy photographing a bird of paradise ‘flower’ (South African in origin) which finally decided to bloom a few weeks ago. It’s arrival happily coincided with my sorting through research files that included these references to Papua New Guinea. The puawai got me thinking about its provenance and led me back to my place of birth and the stunning birds of paradise (the natural point of inspiration I presume) that still survive in the more remote parts of Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia. I don’t know for sure whether I saw and heard the kumul when I was a child but when you consider the location in some of the images below its certainly possible even highly likely.
My personal favourite is the Vogelkop Bird of Paradise native to the Indonesian run side of Papua. In my opinion it posseses the most spectacular show of colour in the male mating rituals. Its’ visual impact has to do with a half disk of the deepest black and almost florescent aquamarine streaks and dots at the centre and the base of the ‘cape’ used to lure the females. There is definitely an essay here about colour in nature, the copyright attempts by sculptor Anish Kapoor to own Vantablack (the world’s blackest black) and the ongoing backlash in England. This kumul is a worthy rival to Kapoor’s Vantablack. It is said to have the blackest colouring on earth with the microscopic structure of its feathers absorbing nearly 100% of the light hitting it. There are incredible images of birds of paradise in Attenborough’s films and the research work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology featuring the fuller range of kumul in their expeditions in the northern western rain forests of West Papua.
I WAS BORN IN A WEST SEPIK VILLAGE CALLED ANGUGANAK later moving to Amanab closer to the recently occupied border of West Papua. My mother later told me we were close enough to witness hospitals and schools going up in smoke as the Indonesians were busy removing the earlier Dutch layer. I include some images from the vantage point of the house Dad built (at Anguganak I am assuming because the bluff – that rises sharply 300 metres into the air – sits prominently in a window in the background of one of the archived photographs).
I dedicate my poem and the images, reclaimed and researched from family letters and fire damaged black and white photographs and 35mm colour transparencies my father took in the 1960s, to my mother and the paradise she pined for but to which she never returned. This strange body of material is the beginning of a range of investigative research work including the odd diary accounts Australian field officers working in this region (Australia took over from the Germans until 1975 when PNG finally gained it’s independence). These documents, a more official background to our presence in Australian occupied PNG, involved variously taking census figures, ‘spying’ (the region shares a northern boundary that buffers Australia from Asia and which became a sensitive zone when the Indonesians annexed the region) and what can only be described as colonial – odd village – inspections and outsider observations.
My father accompanied some of these survey patrols to villages, ‘…that extended from Inabu to Amanab and out to the coast to Vanimo covering hundreds of miles of jungles, swamps and bush clad mountain ranges.’ The records of these gruelling trips are now available in the University of California, San Diego archive of PNG patrol reports and I have been matching them with personal letters. They reveal a great deal about the way in which outsiders are coming into contact with a beautiful and extremely complex range of tribal peoples who continue (thankfully) to occupy an incredibly remote yet increasingly threatened portion of the indigenous world. I am not making a statement here about ‘authenticity’. All cultures change and adapt. However, one hopes that indigenous Papua Nūkini peoples locate a future that suits and which expresses their uniqueness and not the ambitions of the many surrounding nations that want to commercially and culturally exploit their bountiful natural resources.