Tra­di­tion, art and a love story

An Aussie artist pre­serv­ing PNG tra­di­tional knowl­edge

Paradise - - Contents -

The mother of a cry­ing in­fant in Bougainville’s Si­wai district makes a neck­lace for her baby from a par­tic­u­lar long-stemmed fern. The rit­ual of pre­par­ing the or­na­ment helps to calm the child, while the aro­matic qual­i­ties of the freshly bro­ken stem re­lieve its dis­com­fort.

The plant, known as pokara in the lo­cal Mo­tuna lan­guage, forms part of the tra­di­tional med­i­cal dis­pen­sary of the Si­wai peo­ple.

To Aus­tralian artist Kate Robert­son, this is sa­cred knowl­edge, shared and pre­served through the com­mu­nity ini­ti­ated art project, Record­ing the Medic­i­nal Plants of Si­wai, Bougainville.

She’s been work­ing with Bougainville’s Taa Lupumoiku and Rura clans for the past three years to record the im­ages and sto­ries of the re­gion’s tra­di­tional medicines.

Im­ages from the project were re­cently ex­hib­ited at Chap­ter House Lane Gallery in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia.

Robert­son, 36, is an ex­per­i­men­tal pho­tog­ra­pher who strives to live in har­mony with na­ture and con­nect with her sub­jects on a spir­i­tual level.

She first vis­ited Si­wai in 2015 at the in­vi­ta­tion of Taa Lupumoiku clan chief and tra­di­tional healer, Alex Dawia.

Dawia had seen one of her pre­vi­ous projects: a se­ries of un­earthly im­ages cre­ated from the dust kicked up at an al­ter­na­tive life­style fes­ti­val in NSW, in ru­ral Aus­tralia.

He’d been look­ing for some­one to help pre­serve his peo­ple’s lan­guage and tra­di­tional medic­i­nal knowl­edge, and to help bridge the di­vide be­tween Bougainville and the out­side world.

She spent a lot of time on that first visit get­ting to know the com­mu­nity: play­ing games, swim­ming and telling sto­ries.

“It was quite dif­fer­ent to any­thing I was used to,” she says. “The en­vi­ron­ment, the heat, the hu­mid­ity. I just loved it.

“I hung out a lot with the chil­dren. They wanted to talk in English, and teach me words in the lo­cal Mo­tuna lan­guage.”

When she fi­nally brought out her large-for­mat film cam­era, many were in­trigued. But en­thu­si­asm waned be­cause she couldn’t pro­duce pho­to­graphic prints.

“The en­gage­ment with the com­mu­nity was lost be­cause there was no vis­ual out­come straight away,” she says.

Robert­son re­turned the fol­low­ing year with an al­ter­na­tive cam­era-less method, known as the lu­men process, that uses ex­pired black and white pho­to­graphic pa­per.

Sheets of it were placed on ta­bles in a cen­tral lo­ca­tion of the vil­lage, where com­mu­nity mem­bers ar­ranged veg­e­ta­tion on them.

The pa­per re­acts to light, plant juices, con­den­sa­tion and any­thing else it touches, ren­der­ing im­ages in an ar­ray of yel­lows, pinks, or­anges and browns.

Par­tic­i­pants in the project were able to watch the im­ages ap­pear dur­ing ex­po­sures last­ing any­where from a few hours to sev­eral days.

“I hope that I am a bit of a me­di­a­tor,” she says. “I see my­self as some­one who as­sem­bles things, rather than leads the process.”

Robert­son says the method seems to suit Si­wai’s ma­tri­lin­eal cul­ture, which en­cour­ages deep con­tem­pla­tion be­fore sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sions are made.

“I hope I’m tap­ping into the strengths of the women there. It’s a quiet strength. I see that as a very fem­i­nine thing. I hope I’m tap­ping into that and re­spect­ing that.”

Word spread about the project, and lo­cal heal­ers be­gan to seek her out. One of them, Patrick, de­scribed the bush as “our hos­pi­tal”.

“When peo­ple get really sick, they go out to live off the for­est and take the medic­i­nal plants that are re­quired,” he told Robert­son.

“It’s a way to heal them­selves, but also to make sure they don’t pass on the ill­ness to any­one else.”

An­other of Robert­son’s col­lab­o­ra­tors is Rura clan chief, Jef­frey Noro. He has both a cul­tural and a sci­en­tific in­ter­est in the medic­i­nal plants of the Si­wai.

After flee­ing Bougainville dur­ing the civil war, Noro stud­ied nat­u­ral prod­ucts and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal chem­istry, gain­ing a PhD in drug dis­cov­ery for his work on ma­rine sponges.

He founded the Kainake Project in 2013 – a sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment ven­ture based around his home vil­lage.

It aims to ed­u­cate Kainake’s chil­dren and im­prove the area’s eco­nomic prospects, while pro­tect­ing its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. Robert­son’s art project has be­come an in­te­gral part of the broader com­mu­nity con­ser­va­tion ef­fort.

Robert­son and Noro be­came close dur­ing the project, and in 2016 they re­turned to Kainake and be­came en­gaged.

In Si­wai’s ma­tri­lin­eal cul­ture, Noro’s mother, Brid­get Sakui Noro, is the clan’s ‘quiet leader’. She re­cently gave her bless­ing to the re­la­tion­ship.

“In the tra­di­tional way of the clan, it’s not Jeff who pro­poses to me, it’s the fam­ily,” Robert­son says.

“She went into her hut and came out and pre­sented me with a shell money neck­lace.

“Ev­ery­one was laugh­ing and squeal­ing. They were in shock. Some­one said af­ter­wards: ‘Do you know what this is? This is ac­cep­tance into the fam­ily’.”

The cri­sis helped to re­vive in­ter­est in Bougainville’s tra­di­tional medicines, be­cause phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs were un­avail­able.

But there is a recog­ni­tion these plant-based cures can be less ef­fec­tive than mod­ern medicines – some­thing Robert­son was re­minded of dur­ing the project.

“I’d been swim­ming in the creek, and I got an ear in­fec­tion. In 12 hours I went from feel­ing slightly dizzy to vom­it­ing and pass­ing out.

“They tried to fix it tra­di­tion­ally, but it wasn’t work­ing. I ended up go­ing to a lo­cal health care cen­tre.”

She was put on in­tra­venous ther­apy and re­cov­ered in a few days. But the clinic was so poorly equipped, staff strug­gled to find sur­gi­cal tape to se­cure the drip to her hand.

The ex­pe­ri­ence re­in­forced in her mind that com­mu­ni­ties should not have to rely ex­clu­sively on tra­di­tional medicines.

“I just thought, ‘this is not right’. There should be ac­cess to mod­ern medicine in a way that isn’t com­pro­mised,” she says.

She re­turned with a gift of 10 kilo­grams of medicines and med­i­cal sup­plies do­nated by her lo­cal GP in Aus­tralia.

“When I de­liv­ered it back to the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tor was really emo­tional. They just didn’t have that stuff there.

“I don’t think it’s a ques­tion of one or the other. Both tra­di­tional and mod­ern medicines should be avail­able.”

Robert­son is cur­rently work­ing on a book with Kainake’s chil­dren. It will fea­ture im­ages and sto­ries from the project.

In the tra­di­tional way of the clan, it’s not Jeff who pro­poses to me, it’s the fam­ily.

Medicine man ... lo­cal healer Patrick from the Kainake vil­lage (op­po­site page); Kate Rober­ston's art de­pict­ing bush medicine (mid­dle); Robert­son and Jef­frey Noro (left).

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