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«Submitted Spring 2009 as a Plan B paper in partial fulfillment of an M.A. degree in English Literature, Cultural Studies of Asia & the Pacific ...»

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Looking Thru Those Eyeholes: Re-historicizing the OndoBondo Poster Poems

Stuart V. Dawrs

Submitted Spring 2009 as a Plan B paper in partial fulfillment of an

M.A. degree in English Literature, Cultural Studies of Asia & the Pacific


Caroline Sinavaiana, Chair

Ku‘ualoha Ho‘omanawanui

Craig Howes










I. “PRE-HISTORY” Tucked away in the closed-shelf portion of the Pacific Collection, in the University of Hawai‘i’s Hamilton Library, is a nondescript pair of five-foot-tall, black steel filing cabinets. The wide, shallow drawers of these cabinets are specially designed to provide archival preservation for their over-sized, often-fragile contents—maps and architectural drawings; photographs, campaign flyers and a vast array of print ephemera, all of which needs to be stored flat, in a climate-controlled, acid-free environment to ensure availability for future generations of researchers. In one of these drawers, layered among posters advocating for everything from HIV prevention to a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific, are eleven vivid prints: The OndoBondo Poster Poems. In the Binandere language of Papua New Guinea, “Ondobondo” translates as festival, “singsing” or feasting (Chakravarti, “Extracts” 23). Even in this institutional setting, filed away as they are, these posters stand out, with text and imagery that in almost every case hints at a society floating between two worlds: the rural and the urban;

“tradition” and “modernity” (to radically oversimplify those terms). Some (figure 1) could be straight out of New York City, circa the 1960s, and on first glance bring to mind both the Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements. Others (figure 2), are Fig. 1: “Wantok Meri” obviously of

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(figure 3), position themselves directly in-between, featuring in this case a woman with feet literally in both worlds. Even knowing nothing else about where, when, or why these posters were made, it is clear they document a society in flux.

On first glance, there is not a great deal to indicate the provenance of these pieces: From the copyright information printed at the bottom of each poster, one learns that the series was produced in Papua New Guinea and co-edited by Prithvindra Chakravarti and Russell Soaba. The posters are numbered sequentially, indicating serial publication at the rate of roughly one per month between July 1979 (no. 1) and April 1980 (no. 10 and no. 12). Several list the National Arts School among their credits. There is no number 11 in the Pacific Collection holdings, but the dates and sequential numbering indicate that it should

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New Guinean Pidgin-English), English, French and various combinations of the three—by writers ranging from relative unknowns to some of Papua New Guinea’s most celebrated, including Soaba, Nora Vagi Brash, and Regis Stella. These writers are paired with a variety of artists, several of whom would also become well-known in Pacific art circles, particularly Joseph Nalo (figure 4) and Mathias Kauage (figure 5). The posters represent early works in the careers of most the poets and artists. At twenty-nine, Russell Soaba was the most established

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most prominent of the group: Kauage had his first exhibition in 1969 (Rosi 323); Nalo had been making art since the mid-1960s and in 1978, roughly a year before the first poster was made, he became head of the Painting Department of the National Arts School (Rosi 419).

Because they are silk-screened, many of the posters also have a tactile quality—the layering of inks necessary to print multiple colors, one at a time, creates an uneven surface. They are an altogether different kind of illuminated text, and one meant for an altogether different type of reading — that is, they are geared toward mass public display and consumption;

they are not just to be read but to be seen … and are such that, even if one can’t read (or is

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are included in the library’s Online Public Access Catalog and available for anyone to examine in person, the posters remain largely invisible. I am a librarian in Hamilton Library’s Pacific Collection: In the last five years, the posters have not been requested once for viewing. Nor, for that matter, have they received much in the way of interest from Oceanic scholars beyond

Hawai‘i’s shores. This is perhaps not surprising, as the posters have become a rare commodity:

WorldCat, a database that lists the holdings of more than 9,000 libraries worldwide, shows them as existing in only one library in the world—that is, at UH-Mānoa. 1 Indeed, in terms of the official canon of Pacific literature, the poster poems are virtually non-existent. There has been no sustained critical exploration of these works. To my knowledge they are mentioned only once, in passing, in any of the several bibliographies that cover Papua New Guinean or Oceanic literature (Goetzfriedt 27). In fact, I have found only three mentions of them in any academic context. A 1994 book chapter by Penelope Schoeffel (369) reprints Baluwe Umetryrifo’s poem “Ypela Meri I Senis Hariap Pinis” (figure 3) as one example of the ways in which Oceanic women are expected to be keepers of traditional culture. A 1995 article by Laura Zimmer-Tamakoshi (117) in the journal Ethnology briefly cites Mary To Liman’s “Bia Botol Longlong” (figure 6) as evincing a woman’s perspective on the effects of colonialism and modernity, though it doesn’t include the poem’s complete text. And, finally, Evelyn Ellerman’s (223) 1994 dissertation, Literary Institutions in Papua New Guinea, notes the existence of the series as a whole but doesn’t delve into the individual poems. The anthology Nuanua, which

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poster series” (Wendt, Nuanua ix). James’ PNG Women Writers: An Anthology, which reprinted To Liman’s “Bia Botol Longlong” does not credit the original source at all. In all of the cases cited above, when the text of the poem is reprinted, it is done so without the accompanying illustration.

And hence the rationale for this paper. I am a librarian who specializes in Pacific materials. I work in an institution of cultural memory, in which my colleagues and I attempt to simultaneously preserve and make widely available the accumulated knowledge of (and about) Oceania. These dual responsibilities—to preserve and make available—are occasionally at odds with each other. On the one hand, I fully support storing the posters under the conditions described above: Left hanging on a wall and minus climate control, the inks used to print these pieces would have long since begun to fade. Even so, I acknowledge that archival storage utterly decontextualizes the posters; without that context, the posters, if not entirely stripped of their meaning, run the risk of being mis-read. It is also clear that their current existence—housed in a way that keeps them largely outside the public consciousness—was not their intended fate.

These are public works of art; they have a story to tell, and that story remains relevant. This paper is thus meant to return these pieces to their historical context, and in the process to highlight their importance as sign-post(er)s

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writers were not only addressing a broader range of subjects in the wake of independence, but were also creating new means of distribution following a four-year period in which publication of books and journals had virtually ceased.

To accomplish these goals, I will first outline the circumstances that led to these posters—the how and why of them—and in the process use this historical context to illustrate how these works may be read as multiple texts. It is my further contention that, in their multiplicity, the posters not only illustrate a specific set of forces shaping early postindependence PNG literature, but also hint at the ways in which Oceanic writing can and does reach beyond the margins of the printed page and into “proto-literary” forms that extend back hundreds if not thousands of years.

In undertaking this project, I acknowledge that Pacific literary criticism is contested terrain: The debates over who can or should write about indigenous literature—as well as what (and how) “western” literary theory applies to Oceania—are ongoing. For example, in summarizing western critiques of Oceanic writing, Hereniko and Schwarz (56) assert that, “Again and again, we find this inability to empathize, to see history and writing through the eyes of the colonized. The result is a review that is often superficial and ethnocentric.” Meanwhile, in talking about the uneven application of critical theory in the Pacific, Steven Winduo (quoting Paul Sharrad) notes that, “It must be kept in mind that ‘the lack of sizable and home-grown’ critical tradition and criticism ‘has meant that the process of importation leaves much room for eclectic borrowings and academic abstractions’ to theorize Pacific literary culture” (Unwriting Oceania, 602).

These conversations are vital to the growth of Pacific scholarship and Pacific literature itself. At the same time, there are many longstanding schools of critical thought that could be used to deconstruct, categorize or otherwise analyze Papua New Guinean literature 2. Indeed, this paper clearly owes a debt to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and his successors in the field of semiotics, dealing as they do with the ways in which meaning is determined by context. In the end, I feel it is most productive to place primary emphasis on commentary and critical theory generated from within Papua New Guinea, in particular via the writings of Regis N. Stella, Steven Winduo, and Russell Soaba. Stella and Winduo have themselves already synthesized a great deal of western theory into their own work, and along with Soaba are uniquely placed to comment on the posters: All three have lived the history of which they speak. In addition to the works of these writers, I have attempted wherever possible to highlight the critical thinking of writers who engage directly with the Pacific, including Albert Wendt, Epeli Hauofa, and Paul Sharrad. When appropriate, I have also noted the work of those western theorists or schools of thought that have directly impacted the creators of these works of literary art.

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To understand the social forces at play at the time the poster poems were created, it is helpful to have at least a thumbnail knowledge of Papua New Guinea’s history, both in terms of its early settlement and, more importantly, its colonial era.

At 303,500 square miles, the island of New Guinea is the second largest in the world after Greenland. It is in fact so large that residents of New Guinea’s highlands are among the only Pacific Islanders who can live their entire lives without ever seeing the ocean. Politically, the island is split roughly in half on a somewhat arbitrary north-south border, with the western half of the island, today known as Papua 3, currently under the control of Indonesia and the eastern half, Papua New Guinea, being an independent nation and member of the British Commonwealth. The island’s current population of roughly 7.35 million also makes it the largest population center in the Pacific, with 5,130,365 living in Papua New Guinea, and the remaining 2,220,934 in Papua (Europa Publications 861). It is also one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. There are more than 1,000 different languages presently spoken throughout New Guinea, with Papua New Guinea accounting for 820 (Gordon 587). The three official languages of Papua New Guinea are English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu (the latter being another form of pidgin distinct from Tok Pisin).

It is generally agreed that New Guinea was settled in two waves, with the first arrivals being placed anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, at a time when a land bridge still existed between Australia and New Guinea. The bridge would remain until roughly 8,000 years ago, when rising sea levels cut New Guinea off from Australia. Linguistic evidence points to a common link between Australian Aborigines and the first settlers of highland New Guinea (Howes 7), but it has also been noted that the earliest tools found in the highlands have more in common with Japan than they do either Australia or Southeast Asia (Howes 27). In any case, by around 25,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers were established in the highlands, and somewhere between 11,000 and 6,000 years ago, a second wave of settlement took place in the island’s coastal regions. These later arrivals were Austronesian speakers, and are believed to be ancestors of those who later set out to explore and settle the rest of the Pacific (Howes 27). A variety of evidence points to at least some level of established trade between the hunter-gatherers of the highlands and the later-arriving agriculturalists of the coastal regions. Trade between various points in New Guinea and neighboring island groups has also been documented.

New Guinea became known to the European world in 1511, when the western part of the island was sighted by Portuguese navigator Antonio d’Abren. In 1828 the Dutch, having already laid claim to the East Indies (i.e., Indonesia), expanded that claim by annexing the western half of New Guinea. On November 3, 1884, Germany annexed the northeastern portion of the island;

three days later, Great Britain declared a protectorate over the southeastern portion of the island.

“British New Guinea” (i.e., the protectorate) became a fully annexed colony in 1888. In 1906, this colony was renamed Papua 4 and transferred to Australian rule (Standish 23). During this period, the German colony was known as New Guinea.

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