Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Wall of PNG

First published in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea on Friday January 22nd, 2010.

My ten year old son described the mural wall outside the Chinese Embassy in Port Moresby as the “The Great Wall of PNG”. He posed in front of the wall for me to get a picture of him. This wall appealed to him more than the mural wall paintings at Murray Barracks or elsewhere in the city. I took pictures of the wall that day because I know that sooner or later someone ignorant will deface it with graffiti of no taste.

My interest in the mural has nothing to do with my son’s description. The mural on the “great wall of PNG and China” focused on cultural and educational themes more so than economic or political themes. The artistic representation of the relationship between PNG and China is given prominence on this wall. The artistic framing of the experiences of Papua New Guineans is only read if we care to view it deeper than the surface reality presented to us.

Most of the mural artworks are on the walls of the Port Moresby National High School, the University of Papua New Guinea, the Port Moresby General Hospital, and the Chinese Embassy. These mural arts promote a cultural and social memory among the residents or the visitors to the city of Port Moresby. Whether anyone takes mural art in a serious way or remains uninterested, the visual pleasure such art generates is immeasurable. The mural art developed slowly in the early days when Port Moresby was a less populated city to one that is now overcrowded, congested, and struggling with promoting a balance and unbiased image to counteract the images promoted about it overseas.

Art is a reflection of a living experience that “is more than a statement about the relations of the observer to the observed,” according to Theordore Adorno, the influential Marxist art critic and intellectual. For art to embody the aesthetic experience it must become a living experience animated by the gaze of the viewer. The murals around Port Moresby or elsewhere in PNG serve similar functions.

Art is a tapestry of life. It is contemplative and reproduces meaning in a fundamental way. Art is produced in a way that is capable of speaking to us the moment our gazes land on it. “By speaking,” Ardono argues, “it becomes something that moves in itself.” It is that movement that we grasp when we view art, not its static, unchanging, and immobile elements. We grasp the relations formed by these elements in the work of art.

Art imitates reality. The artists negotiate the past with the present, the modern with the pre-modern, and between those who observe and those who are observed. The sense of hybridity permeates most of these public art forms in a way that many stories are told at once in a single space. Mural arts are always there in front of us. If we take the time to view these mural walls of art we can make sense of the importance these public art work at reproducing the history of our country.

The artists of these mural paintings appropriated postmodern cultural tools, knowledge, and material culture for their own self-representations. In the process of appropriation Papua New Guinean artists simultaneously reproduced a culture that is neither traditional nor modern, but a hybrid of both worlds capable of telling thousands of stories.

Art is a text with its own language system. Art as a text functions to signify meaning that is embedded in the society that produced it. As a system of signs art demands to be read as a text. Art produces and replicates its individuality and associations with itself and others in the same sphere of relationships.

The public murals are works of art that constitute a set of texts about life and conditions of human society in Papua New Guinea. These works of art are more than merely present or as colourful wall decorations—they are produced with the sense of art as a textual embodiment of life.

Reading mural art as text allows us to testify to the great human potential and complexity, its confusions, contradictions, contentions, and meaningful associations. Art as text is a tapestry of human lives always needing to be interpreted, given meaning, and reproduced to suspend closure or ending. Adorno reminds us that all artwork have something to teach us: “All artworks, even the affirmative, are a priori polemical… they are the unconscious schemata of that world’s transformation” (1997). It is this unconscious schemata of our world’s transformation that we experience every time we view the artwork around us.

The mural art alls of Port Moresby represent our world through the brush strokes of our local artists. In the mural arts we become active participants in an unconscious schema of transformation. We are to a larger extend involved in the reproduction of the textual meanings in these works of art. The mural on the “Wall of PNG” gave my son his perception of the wall as it did to me. We inhabit the same world, but see the world in different ways than we know.

Our rich traditional artistic heritage, in the forms of material arts, performance arts, or other artistic constructions, is not our focus here. Most of us are familiar with these and others such as the fine arts, sculptures, and print art forms. The notions of art discussed here, however, remain principles of aesthetics and function as frameworks of reading works of art in general.

The art works that we create in our lifetime capture the lived moments of our lives. In art we express the way we feel, see ourselves, and make sense of the complex world around us. Art gives us the key to self-expression and social-cultural representations. We use art to speak about our way of life and our world. In art we seize the moment to make a point that cuts through the different views we have about issues affecting us every day. Art is a reflection of our world.

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