Who Owns Pacific Traditional Arts?

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


By Caroline Lafargue

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, April 23, 2015) – The difference between misappropriation of culture and the modernisation of a practice can be difficult to determine.

A song, dance or artefact can carry a lot of meaning. Sometimes it's a way of expressing one's identity to a certain culture or community.

But as cultural arts find their way into an increasingly global world, questions are emerging about the ownership of traditional knowledge – just where does tradition end and modernity begin?

A panel on indigenous culture and intellectual property, held as a part of the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival Symposium in Melbourne in April, investigated the question of copyright and ownership as well as community responses to cultural icons used out of traditional context.

Whenever the issue of intellectual property in the Pacific is raised, the conversation starts with Afunakwa, a woman from the Baeggu tribe in Northern Malaita in Solomon Islands, who has become the icon of exploitation of indigenous culture in the Pacific.

Afunakwa was recorded singing a lullaby in 1969 by ethnomusicologist Hugo Zampin. More than 20 years later, French band Deep Forest used this lullaby without permission, in order to create the 1992 hit song Sweet lullaby.

Individual copyright is covered in the majority of countries in the world, but the members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) are yet to develop an international legal instrument for the effective protection of indigenous and local collective cultural heritage. This would include things such as genetic resources, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

Speaking at the symposium, indigenous intellectual property law expert Patricia Adjei said WIPO negotiations have reached a stalemate and the intergovernmental committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore won’t even hold its annual meeting in 2015.

Negotiations have been under way for 15 years, but it has proved difficult for involved countries to agree on issues such as a common legal definition of traditional knowledge and of the concept of public domain – which doesn't even exist in every country. It has also proved difficult to match the interests of developing nations, where much of this indigenous knowledge lies, with those of developed nations.

Collective licensing of indigenous cultural material is still not recognised worldwide.

In the Pacific, Niue and the Cook Islands stand out as notable exceptions. They’re the only two Pacific countries, so far, that have enacted national legislation protecting traditional knowledge, drawing on the Pacific model law on the protection of traditional knowledge and expressions of culture that was developed collaboratively with UNESCO, WIPO, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Council of Pacific Arts and finalised in 2002.

Indigenous intellectual and cultural property protection laws are still going through different stages of the drafting process in Fiji, Palau, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.

Nike's leggings

In absence of a solid legal system to protect indigenous cultural material, popular campaigns remain the most effective way to have leverage with corporate companies.

In 2013 Nike used a traditional male tattoo pattern from Samoa on women’s leggings, creating outrage in Pacific communities.

After months of a name and shame campaign on the internet the athletic footwear and clothing manufacturer eventually agreed to stop producing the leggings.

That same year, Fiji Airways attempted to trademark 15 traditional Fijian tapa cloths designs, which are widely used in the country, as a logo on its planes.

This time, in addition to a virulent campaign on the internet and an online petition addressed to the prime minister, community group Na Noda Masi filed a submission to the Fijian Registrar of Trademarks. The result of the submission remains unclear.

The mudman mask: does it belong to PNG or to the Asaro tribe?

For some it may be easy to form an opinion on the corporate use of a traditional design or song, but what happens when an it's an artist using an object, a design, or an expression that belongs to a culture other than their own?

Are they promoting that culture? Stealing it? Reinterpreting it?

An expat Papua New Guinean visual artist and speaker at the symposium, Naup Waup , like many other artists, has walked this fine line numerous times. But he’s one of the few who are open about the issues, and doesn't have a definite answer about the matter.

"It's the same impossible question as: When does tradition stop and modernity starts?" Naup says.

He's been living in Australia for around 30 years and is inspired by many things – including the mudman mask of the Asaro people who live in and near Goroka in the Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea.

Naup Waup started fabricating his own mudman masks in Melbourne with local materials, including chicken wire and paper.

Goroka, the mudmen country, is situated approximately 450 kilometres away from Naup's home – the Amam area in the Owen Stanley ranges, 100 km east of Port-Moresby.

"Part of me is still a person of my tribe and I'm using someone else's thing, but it's a really good way of promoting my country because it is a thing that is seen as PNG image, anywhere in the world." Naup says, adding that when he moved to Australia he identified as a Papua New Guinean, rather than with one of his country's more than 800 cultures or languages.

"It's very hard to find a cultural item or expression that represents the whole of Papua new Guinea to foreigners, but Asaro mudmen have become an icon abroad, just as bilum bags," he explains.

Although traditionally made by women from specific regions of Papua New Guinea, Naup is also revisiting the art of bilum making.

A Melbourne-based visual artist of Papuan New Guinean (Tolai, from the Gazelle Peninsula northeastern New Britain) and Australian descent, Lisa Hilli has been through this process herself.

"There are things that do change and evolve culturally, and PNG artist Naup is practicing the art of bilum, which is customarily something that women do but it's not gendered, so yes he can make it, that's fine," she says. "And I also think that when cultures migrate there is that tendency for those gender boundaries to break down because there is that risk of cultural practice fading away. And so then there's that possibility where the culture can maintain through change."

Tolai male shell collar recreated by female artist

Since 2010 Lisa Hilli has been inspired by a particular middi, shell collar, that she discovered one afternoon while exploring the storage rooms of the Australian Museum in Sydney, which holds approximately 60 000 ethnographic objects from Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

The line of knowledge transmission had long been broken: she had never heard of these middis, neither had her parents.

"As early as 1906, a visitor to New Britain [in Papua New Guinea] noted that these collars were no longer made and that a collector would have to be lucky to obtain one in good condition and only for a high price," Lisa Hilli wrote in issue 1, 2015 of Oceania Now, quoting the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, United Kingdom.

It is believed that there are now no middi left on Papua New Guinean territory. Those remaining are either on display or held in storage in museums worldwide.

"It is believed that these collars, worn by Tolai men, were imbued with magic and worn across the chest as a form of armour or protection," Lisa explains.

Obsessed with this object of her own culture, the artist decided to teach herself how to make a middi of her own.

She then photographed Tolai people in Australia and in Papua New Guinea with the middi around their necks, as a unique way of reactivating her cultural heritage.

"I'm looking at a male body adornment as a woman and I'm reinvigorating it," she says. "Is it OK for me to be doing that or is it OK for that object to stay dormant in the museum and don't get ever revived?

"I've requested permission from Tolai elders, they've supported me 100 per cent. I wouldn't be researching middi if I didn't have their permission."

Duk duk scandal in Melbourne

Lisa Hilli’s reinterpretation and revival of the middi can be seen as a best-practice model – and she hopes that others would treat cultural objects the way she has, by researching its meaning, respecting protocols and asking elders’ permission.

But she says this is not always the case, and refers to what she sees as a blatant example of misappropriation of indigenous culture at Melbourne's iconic community festival Moomba in March 2015.

The festival's parade included a duk duk, which Lisa says is traditionally a member of a male secret society within the Tolai community. Members wear a faceless cone-shaped mask that covers their body down to the knees and have their own secret signs and rituals.

"It's a sacred ancestral figure to my background – Tolai," Lisa says. "To see it in the parade was incredibly insulting. Women are not supposed to see duk duk and at the Moomba parade the duk duk was leading a group of women!"

The faux pas created quite a stir within Melbourne's Papua New Guinean community as the duk duk's appearance was part of a specific Papua New Guinean community group – but not one of Tolai origin.

"It's one thing to be culturally appropriated by Europeans, but when it gets to other PNG people, it's even more a kick in the guts, it's so much more powerful in terms of an insult," Lisa said. "It scares me that we don't even know what's right or wrong any more because so much cultural knowledge has been lost."

The community group was forced to give an official apology and its president had to step down.

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