Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Carving shared. PNG in Victoria's Alcheringa Galley.

The other day we watched a DVD from the library, titled 'Killer Whale and Crocodile': a documentary film about carving, both on our own North West Coast and in Papua New Guinea. As I have been a carver since childhood, I found it very stimulating to see a whole village of carvers along the banks of the Sepik River and it reminded me of a dream I had as a returning CUSO volunteer from S. America. With some courses in Anthropology behind me and the recent experience of living in the far reaches of the Amazon, I was aware of the relentless pace at which Western culture was bulldozing traditional societies and their belief systems aside. As a teacher in Guyana, I was part of that process and it left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. Surely, I thought, there must be some way, if not to stop it, then to create a transition to give new vitality to traditional beliefs even as things changed on the ground. In fact, surely these traditional ways of living with the world had much to offer the rest of us who were hell bent on destroying the very reality that supported us all.

I was thinking of John Houston's work in the Canadian Arctic where he introduced Inuit people to printmaking, helped create a fine art market and jump-started co-operatives and individual artists into beginning a cultural revival. How about using this model in New Guinea along the Sepik River I thought, or along some new road, hydro dam project or strip mine in 'developing' countries around the world? I checked with my Anthropology prof. and received a guarded answer as I should have expected. Science casts a jaundiced eye on 'social engineering' such as I was innocently proposing.

Imagine my delight to find in the video that the Sepik was producing carvings that make real the cultural stories that underpinned a people's belief in themselves. Some for the tourist market by the kilo, some for the world's fine art collectors market and some for local buildings and ceremonial needs. All these people were somehow blending the old ways with the new, supporting their villages financially and using the net to keep in contact with new ideas and markets around the world.

We in the west tend to think of the Arts as an expensive lump of jelly on top of our ice cream, something good but somehow extra. Too much might even be bad for us! We have lost all those old stories of how things came to be and how we fit into the world and this is to our detriment because these are the roots of image making, of song and dance, of expression itself. These Sepik carvings oozed energy, raw power and creativity and made the gallery images on the walls of so many contemporary western art galleries seem pallid and uninspired.

We visited the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria soon after watching the DVD and spent a marvellous time seeing the carvings and talking to the owner/collector who spent time walking us through, pointing things out and discussing the very issues that were in my thoughts when we first returned from our own life changing experiences in the Amazon. And yet, just as I had wondered while wandering in the basement of the National Galley in Ottawa while viewing the Inuit collections, is there some kind of dislocation when we view as ART something so far removed from the role these pieces may play within another societal context? Are we fooling ourselves, is this just another imperial set of acquisitions, taking a cultural artifact and making it 'art' with commercial value within our own cultural context?

 But even while questioning the whole economic foundation of these displayed carvings I found I got a creative charge and a sense of comradeship with other makers of images because their work was before me in Victoria and not hidden away in a remote ( to us) location. Perhaps the message from that video was that artists share a common vision no matter what their cultural background. If the only way we can be influenced by these carvings ( like Picasso before us) is through a fine art gallery, and if people can support themselves and way of life through making art for others, surely this is a reasonable balance. So, thank you Alcheringa, for making my old dream come true.

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