Jul 21, 2017 Last Updated 2:11 PM, Jun 12, 2017

2000 take part in traditional extravaganza

The true spirit of Melanesian cultural identity has again been invigorated, fostered and enhanced at the 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture staged from 28th June to 11th July in Papua New Guinea. The two weeks of cultural events, which have been held concurrently in Port Moresby, Kokopo, Mt Hagen and Wewak, have achieved more than just sharing of the diversity of the cultural heritage of the Melanesian countries. The festivities ensured enjoyment and maximum outcomes for all participants through the exchange of gifts, knowledge and mutual friendship. More than 2000 participants from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and for the first time ever - groups from West Papua, Timor-Leste and Torres Strait in Australia exhibited and shared their cultural dances, traditions, and art and craft over the two weeks. The festival has been described as the biggest event ever organised by any one country within the Melanesian Spearhead Group with many sacred and unique traditional dances from the region being displayed - some for the first time in public.

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After 136 years, the skull of chief Ataï has come home. In a moving ceremony in Paris, the remains of this 19th century Kanak warrior have been returned to New Caledonia. On August 28, France’s Overseas Minister George Pau-Langevin, Kanak chief Bergé Kawa and a crowd of descendants and dignitaries attended a ceremony at the Natural History Museum in Paris.

The French state transferred the remains of Ataï and his companion “the sorcerer”, who were killed during a Kanak revolt in 1878. After Ataï’s death, he was beheaded, with the head preserved in a bottle and transferred to the Anthropological Society of Paris.

After examination of his brain, the skull was stored away. Transferred in 1951 to the Museum of Man, it was not revealed again until July 2011. During a 2013 visit to New Caledonia, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault responded to the Kanak call for the repatriation of Ataï’s skull: “The position of the French state is clear - this relic must be returned to New Caledonia and it will be returned.” Ataï has long served as a symbol of Kanak nationalism. Today, images of the warrior chief can be found as graffiti on the walls of Noumea or decorating the T-shirts of young Kanaks, alongside rebels like Eloi Machoro, the Kanak leader shot down by French police in 1985.

After colonisation in 1853, New Caledonia served as a penal colony, with France exiling over 20,000 prisoners to the other side of the globe. After popular revolts in Paris and Algeria in 1871, the survivors of the Paris Commune and Kabyle rebels from the Sahara were also transported to the South Pacific. 

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Russian play was a big hit

The erosion of tradition. The breakup of families. The destruction of an ancient, longstanding community. Passionate politics. Music that captures the soul. The struggle to make ends meet. Just another day in the Marshall Islands? No, this is the 1905 village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia and the story that gripped Majuro audiences was the latest play directed by Professor Andrew Garrod of Dartmouth College and Youth Bridge Global, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The stage production involved over 40 actors mostly from Majuro high schools, playing to thousands over five nights in early March. The many obvious and subtle parallels with modern-day Marshall Islands gave Fiddler extra meaning to Marshall Islands audiences. With the exception of the songs, which were sung in their original English, all dialogue was in Marshallese language.

This was the tenth play Garrod has directed in Majuro since 2004 — eight have been Shakespeare plays and last year’s and this year’s musicals — and possibly the last as Dartmouth College is ending its 15-year sponsorship of a very successful volunteer teaching programme in the Marshalls. Dartmouth, under Garrod’s leadership, began bringing a group of seven-to-ten Dartmouth students to Majuro for a ten-week teaching programme, allowing them to get real-world experience under the guidance of experienced local teachers.

Enthusiasm for the undergraduate programme generated a spinoff program of Dartmouth graduates being hired by the Ministry of Education to staff local elementary and high schools since the early 2000s. Garrod launched his first Shakespeare production in 2004 in an environment where just about no one had a clue what he was up to. “The students had never seen or been in a play,” he said. They didn’t have a clue what it took to make it happen and this meant Garrod was challenged to keep their attention at the daily practices. “I had to station a Dartmouth football player at the door to prevent the students from leaving the rehearsals.” That first year was an eye-opener for the performers as well as the audiences, building momentum for the plays that have become a much-anticipated community event in March.

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The gift the Fijians gave away

When the gift of tattoo was given to Samoan twin girls in Fiji, they swam all the way to Samoa to perform the first tatau. It was a gift that’s lasted thousands of years and while the Samoans had fiercely guarded this art making it a Samoan tradition, times have seen many other nationalities now taking this up n either by learning about it or by wearing it. The festive season is often a time when the families come to Samoa for holidays, reunions, weddings, funerals and title bestowments. For over two years now, there’s now another tradition that’s made many Samoans return home and that’s getting a tattoo.

The Su’a family members, the only people allowed to perform this tradition, are kept up at all hours trying to cater for those now queuing up to get their tattoos done. The average tatau (men’s tattoo) takes between a week to two weeks and they cost $5,000 (Samoan tala). The malu (women’s tattoo) takes just a day or two and that costs $1,500 (Samoan tala). For Su’a Senior, who has been performing tattoos for thousands of Samoans for over four decades, he had decided to give his sons most of the work, opting to take more time for himself. But he’s often requested to perform tattoos to the many Samoans living in New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii or the United States.

His son Su’a Peter has been working in Hawaii while his youngest son Su’a Sulu’ape Junior has been looking after things in Samoa. The festive season, however, had seen all three tattooists come together in Samoa to cater for the number of those wanting tattoos. There are many traditional taboos surrounding this tradition. Those undergoing tattoo cannot sleep with their partners during the actual operation. They cannot drink alcohol, cannot shave, cannot have sex nor can they sleep using a pillow. They are also not allowed to be alone at any time. That’s culture, however, there are other conditions to ensure that they remain fit to take on more of the operation day after day.

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Tuilaepa: It’s our heritage, cultural property

Hell hath no fury like a Samoan scorned. At least that’s what global sportswear behemoth Nike discovered in early August when it released photos of women’s workout gear bearing the pe’a—the traditional Samoan men’s tattoo. Within a matter of days, a global backlash ensued as Samoans around the world took to the internet to vent. “I find Nike’s blatant disrespect and profit over my culture’s way of life shameless and irreverent,” wrote 37-year old Samoan-American Siimoa Galoia on a change.org petition calling for the removal of the range.

“The tatau is thousands of years old with a tradition of honour and you have reduced it to $80 spanx [women’s underwear]. Remove at once!” On August 18, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi weighed in, telling the Savali newspaper, “Those are our Samoan measina (cultural treasures). It’s our heritage and our cultural property. We should all be protective of it. It should not be randomly exploited for commercial use as it has been in this case. Especially when we are getting absolutely nothing from Nike.”

The Samoan newspaper reported that Malielegaoi has instructed the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to look at how best to protect Samoan traditional designs. Spurred by the uproar, Nike pulled the range of sports bras, leggings, jumpsuits and singlets for women, saying in a statement, “The Nike Tattoo Tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics.

We apologise to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended.” q Questions to Nike asking whether Samoan communities had been consulted in the design process were not returned. Around the same time, another internet storm was brewing—this one to do with the use of Fijian kesakesa motifs by New York designer Nanette Lepore on dresses she labelled the ‘Aztec’ range.

This drew the ire of Fijians around the world, who took to the brand’s Facebook page to protest. While the designer apologised for the gaffe on Facebook, writing: “I am truly sorry for misnaming the Aztec Dress. I respect local artists everywhere and I apologise for any offense this has caused”.

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