The South Pacific Festival of Arts


The South Pacific Festival of Arts - a movable feast of Pacific cultures held every four years and in 1980 staged at Port Moresby - is now one of the great art festivals of the world. The 1980 festival, hosted by Papua New Guinea, was the third held so far. New Caledonia is already preparing the fourth. The festivals have a past, a future, and a character which is unique.

Canoe from Papua New Guinea being prepared for the regatta
Photograph by Gil Hanly

Part of that character is size and energy. Performers are drawn, usually in teams, from almost every nation and island state in the South Pacific. Numbers of performers have always exceeded 1200, and the audience is made up of many thousands more. The arts most prominently featured are those of the dance - of village cultures whose life and work are celebrated in the stamping and gesture of human groups, in chants which praise the natural gods of sun, wind, and sea.

Another part of that character is political content. The festivals are a political mirror. They reflect the contradictions of Pacific societies emerging from a colonial age: the pressure of the big unseen nations across the horizon on small Pacific cultures; and within those small cultures the junctions of old styles with the new. The boundaries between such opposites are frequently still shifting - the attempts at reconciliation, both succesful and not, are a part of the festivals. And beyond that, the festivals are themselves a breath of history in the making, the first appearance of a unity within the differing cultures of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The diaspora which began perhaps seven thousand years ago has turned and found in this event the focus of a common ancestry, a common island heritage, and at the least, the setting for a very good party for all-comers' in the South Pacific.

Canoe dance performed by Solomon Islanders
Photograph by Gil Hanly

The history of the Pacific migration is worth sketching to understand the traditions which the South Pacific Festivals of Art are now deep-mining. Evidences of human occupation go back over 20/000 years in parts of Papua New Guinea. The gradual flow of Melanesians to the island chains of the Solomons and the New Hebrides was a later development. The migrations to the islands north of Papua New Guinea, and the proto-Polynesian movements towards the eastern islands of the Pacific may have begun seven thousand years ago, coincident with, and perhaps displaced by the first big organisation and expansion of Chinese culture in the Shang Dynasty. Later by far ,the explorations of a distinctively Polynesian race in voyaging canoes throughout most of the islands east of Fiji took place over a period of two thousand years, and resulted in the settlement of the remaining habitable islands of the South Pacific.

European contact, which began in the sixteenth century, and gathered force in the centuries which followed, changed forever Polynesian society; and that of Micronesia also; and, to a lesser extent, the Melanesians. Not until the mid 1960s, emerging in tandem with independence or self-government declarations by the modern South Pacific states, did the call go out to revitalise traditional art forms in the South Pacific as a regional project, to conserve those arts stilt existing, and to encourage new forms suitable to a Pacific heritage. The call came first from the Fiji Arts Council, and it was fitting that the first South Pacific Festival of Arts dedicated to these aims was staged at Suva in 1972. Fiji at that time was just two years independent, and lay geographically near the junction of Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian sectors in the South Pacific. A memorable festival was floated on a minimal budget of $200,000.

Dancer from the Baiyer River area, Papua New Guinea
Photograph by Gil Hanly

The second festival, in 1976, was staged in New Zealand at Rotorua. Its highlights included a Solomon Islands panpipe band playing for the first time for anyone other than tribal-royalty; Maori waiata, also in a rare public performance; a tour de force in fast dance and drumming by the Cook Islands' National Arts Theatre; and bawdy plays mimed by a Papua New Guinea troupe. Surpassing all of that, the festival was blessed with a rare combination of atmospheric phenomena. On a Sunday, just as the festival was beginning, a solar halo, itself a distinct white band of light, was joined in the sky by a solar ellipse. The two forms hung in the sky, but where the white band of the solar halo passed across the similarly white band of the ellipse, great blocks of rainbow colour hung in the air.

Papua New Guinea, in 1980, had a lot to live up to: and it did. The opening day of the 1980 festival began with the arrival of a canoe flotilla. Used in 1976 simply as a graphic symbol, the canoe has now become the live heart of the festivals. Some craft in the flotilla - the canoe from Manus Island north of the New Guinea coastline was one - had travelled over 1000 kilometres to arrive at Ela Beach, Port Moresby, that morning. A New Hebrides voyaging canoe was also due to arrive: but bad weather delayed it. This canoe set the precedent none the less. Ocean voyages by canoe may yet implant an epic dimension within future festivals. In New Zealand, one Maori group is discussing the practicality of a canoe voyage from New Zealand to New Caledonia in 1984.

In the afternoon of that same day nearly 2000 performers in a multitude of national or tribal costumes walked into Herbert Murray stadium in the alphabetical order of their twenty-four island states. The speeches were extraordinary. The speakers were extraordinary also. Stephen Tago, the PNG Minister of Culture wore tribal finery and a feathered head-dress.

Parri children waiting to perform
Photograph by Gil Hanly

We are in union with the presence of our ancestors', he told the vast assemblage of dancers and artisans. 'Let us together pay homage to the memory of our ancestors, the source of our strength and origin of our combined heritage. Let us also acknowledge the worthy customs and traditional wisdoms of our people, which have come down from generation to generation.'

The 1980 South Pacific Festival of the Arts was then opened. It was the biggest popular event in Papua New Guinea since independence day five years earlier, and the local people called it the Sing-sing of the Century.

Giant fabric flowers, red and white, hibiscus and frangipani, had been set on poles above open-air sites, and proclaimed the festival venues. The performances were mostly free to local crowds, and where the concerts were ticketed the Melanesians gently pushed down the barriers and came in free anyway. The major concerts were attended by thousands. The Tahitians, with their tamure, and the Hawaiians, with their professional hipshake and polished coconut-shell brassieres, were the most hugely popular.

The Cook Islands contingent was disappointing in performance. The National Arts Theatre, which performed so well at Rotorua in 1976, had apparently fallen from political favour and was not at the festival, its place being taken by a cabaret-style presentation which looked as if it had been perfected before tourists at the Rarotongan Hotel. Another surprise was the tendency of the Tongan and Samoan teams to introduce clowns into such gracious dances as the tau'o!unga. Their function was to keep large crowds amused during what are often quite long performances, by a clumsily imitative or mimic role. In these developments, the Polynesian teams may be giving away too much from their tradition for the sake of pleasing an audience.

Dancers from the East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
Photograph by Gil Hanly

The New Zealand Maori group, the Waihirere concert party, held the crowds with long and short poi dances, and weapons and challenge displays: but they too suffered from comparison in any double billing with a Papua New Guinea tribal dance team. I remember one exciting display from the Walhirere group - but the Manus dancers which followed them in performance were something else. Their dance was a dance of triumph on conquered territory. The New Guinea dancers stamped in true victory. The men wagged what were politely called 'socks' (outsize phalluses) at the delighted crowd, and the beating of slit gongs lifted the performance to a savage intensity. So too with the following dance 'Osidian spears are best'. The Papua New Guinea tribesmen, many of whom have been in contact with the wider aspirations of their new nation for less than thirty years, still have a vital art.

The stamping and yodelling of the Inbongu Highlanders, the Enga, the Chimbu with their fantastic head-dresses of Bird of Paradise. . . these were among eighteen tribal groups from Papua New Guinea giving the 1980 festival a play of colour and belief which marked the festival as Papua New Guinea's own. As denizens of an anciently-settled land, the tribespeople and their ridge culture are masters of visual display. Their art has taken them also into an area where the Micronesians and the Polynesians seldom venture - into direct portrayal of the spirit of those fish and animals on whom their livelihood depends.

The masks and ritual which surround such an entry may evoke a supernatural response. Occult links built up in Melanesia by such practices are well-known: the dolphin drives, and shark worship of the Solomons are two examples.. Festival-goers had one brief insight to this dimension as they watched the fire-walking preparations of the East New Britain performers of New Guinea. Painted black, with tails pinned to their flesh and hidden beneath the fantastic masks of dream, the fire-walkers prepared for their ordeal amidst hypnotic chant. The air was vibrant and sinister, and the dancers moved in on the bonfires at last, kicking them finally to bits.

Enga dancers from the Papua New Guinea highlands
Photograph by Gil Hanly

At the end of ten days, the red dye of the giant hibiscus flowers (always a fugitive colour) was beginning to fade. The tropical sun was relentless; and the performers had given their best in prolonged performance. There are observations to be made for future festivals. In French-administered New Caledonia in 1984, the festival is unlikely to escape the growing pressure on the French to relinquish more control of the island to the indigenous kanaks. Much can still be done also to portray the great arts of the region in other than the popular dance forms. Tattooing springs to mind as an art more highly developed in the Pacific over centuries than anywhere else in the world. There should be room for its documentation, and perhaps a gathering of those who carry the different patterns of the islands. Carving, represented well in the New Zealand team but with little input from elsewhere, is another rich Pacific art which could draw on a very wide tradition. The same applies to literature - it is one of the fastest developing forms in the modern Pacific. It will be up to future festivals to organise such subjects. The 1980 Festival, in the meantime, was a worthy advance on the festivals of 1972 and 1976.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 18 Summer 1981