Simon Gende History Paintings
Simon Gende, Gere, Gembogi district, Simbu province, Papua New Guinea 1969
Twin Towers 2014, acrylic on cotton duck
CURRENT AFFAIRS – SIMON GENDE’S VIEW FROM THE HIGHLANDS
by Tony Oates
… [while] present day Papuan New Guinea bears its colonial legacy in the structures of its political, economic and education systems … the overlay of western … infrastructures could never disguise the distinctive character of the country and its people
Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most culturally diverse places with over 700 language groups in an area roughly the size of Victoria. It is a rugged country – hot, humid, wet – the interior notoriously inaccessible, blockaded by a thick expanse of old-growth forest and series after series of sheer mountain ranges. While the coastal people of Papua New Guinea traded with neighbouring countries for millennia and had continuous contact with the west from the mid-nineteenth century, the central highlands remained impenetrable to foreigners until the early 1930s, when a team of gold prospectors led by the Australian Mick Leahy navigated a tributary system and unlocked the region to the rest of the world . For the highlanders the existence of another race was a shocking revelation, particularly as white men emerged along the rivers in which the bones of deceased clansmen were ritually discarded. Were these the returning spirits of ancestors or perhaps a strike of ‘lightning from the sky’ ? The technology that the Leahy party brought with them – guns, knives, axes, gramophone, and aircraft – seemed magical and initiated a local fascination with the material productions of the west that saw discarded tin cans immediately repurposed as body ornament. With the Leahy incursion came a most sudden acceleration – an injection of modernisation that has seen the area develop to a point where today there is access to mobile telephones, televisions, computers and the internet.
Yet, highlands society ‘was never static’ and the ability to diversify and adapt has been a conspicuous characteristic of this community. It is no wonder then that so much technological change has been embraced and that old colonial administrative towns such as Goroka have flourished as creative centres in which the modern, the anachronistic, and tribal traditions mix potently, and where society seems to have reconciled tribal law and western dogma. It is here in the centre of town, set up outside the Birds of Paradise Hotel, that Simbu artist Simon Gende trades in painting. His work is the continuation of a tradition established by Kauage Mathias, his teacher and fellow Simbu, and follows a lineage of highlander artists including Apa Hugo, John Siune and Oscar Towa. In their tradition, Gende utilises a vibrant palette of high keyed colours in combination with a graphic style that is specifically two dimensional, compelling narratives to develop, unfold and untangle in idiosyncratic sequence. His painting is lively, full of movement and stimulated by a fluid, quirky arrangement of elements that directs the eye up, through and around the canvas from corner to corner with a pulse punctuated by shifts in colour and drastic changes in scale, weight and detail. It is a structure echoing the form of traditional tapa bark cloth, also somewhat reminiscent of the work of the indigenous Australian painters, Mickey from Ulladulla and Robert Campbell Jr, as well as the dense Buddhist cave paintings of Dun Huang or the pages of Lee Falk’s Phantom.
These structural devices facilitate Gende’s central concern – storytelling. He is a talented allegorist, possessing the ability to blend narratives in a unique way. The subjects of his paintings are sourced from newspapers and reflect major global events of our time, yet inevitably they incorporate issues of local concern: centred on discrimination and injustice, gender and racial equality, health and well-being, military and political conflict, colonial relationships and foreign aid.
The continued ‘war on terror’ that has preoccupied the headlines of our newspapers and television screens for over a decade remains one of Gende’s major narrative concerns. Beginning with the aerial assault on the World Trade Centre (Long 11-9-2001 tupela balus I bumpim twin tower long U.S.A 2006), Gende has insightfully chronicled the key moments of the saga: western forces invade several middle eastern states; the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein; the assassination of Osama bin Laden (The American soldier found Osama in the house with his wife, son, body guards and killed him 2013); a proliferation of acts of terrorism and injustice (Bali bombing 2013, Boston city bombing USA 2013); and a succession of people-powered revolutions that flooded across the middle east in 2011-12 (Fighting for freedom in Libya 2011, The Syrian War 2012, Egyptian Soldiers put President Murst in prison and killed many people in the protest 2013).
Gende’s Long 11-9-2001 tupela balus I bumpim twin tower long U.S.A 2006 depicts the catastrophic events that took place in the lower east side of New York on September 11 2001, its imagery beamed to the furthest corners of the earth, including the remote village of Kama in the eastern highlands where Gende lives. His 9/11 is a very specific depiction that injects the events of that day with localised Papua New Guinean references. In this multi-levelled depiction Gende can place and review Simbu history within a global context. The action, as if relocated to the highlands, takes place between a series of elementary grey volcanic forms quite as impersonal as the gridlocked skyscrapers of New York City. The towers of the world trade centre have the appearance of traditionally thatched grass huts, while the two incoming aircraft are adorned with a variety of clan designs on the wings and stabilizers, the fuselage superimposed with faces of local tribes in full ceremonial dress (Asaro Mudmen, Mt Hagen and Simbu tribal groups). The obscure amalgam of motifs that combines to form the aircraft is a particularly Kauage-esque collocation, suggesting the social changes that have taken place since the arrival of westerners. It recalls a moment of initial contact recounted in Simbu folklore when a young child selected for a joyride by the Leahy prospectors was ‘carried off by the spirits’ inside their ‘giant bird’, returning several days later with material evidence of the unknown world beyond. Following the attack on the twin towers many commented that ‘life would never be the same in a post 9 / 11 world’: equally the arrival of aircraft into the highlands began an explosive and irreversible chain of events which effected massive change.
Continuing the saga, The sea burial of Osama bin Laden 2014 employs many of the same spatial, graphic and tonal qualities of Gende’s earlier history paintings. The careful arrangement of objects establishes a centrifugal movement that is delicately interposed by a scattering of tropical flowers which activate the pictorial surface like stars in the night sky. We immediately associate the burning hut with the flaming twin towers. The American’s helicopter, while bearing the US flag, is again built of an arrangement of traditional Papuan designs, its rotor-blade echoed by the form of an underlying bird of paradise (the national emblem of Papua New Guinea) which reinforces the supernatural character of this mode of flight. Below, the body of Osama bin Laden, encased in a net, falls towards the fish that populate his ocean grave. The sea burial of Osama bin Laden is reminiscent of the structure and storyline of Oscar Towa’s earlier gouache Dispela em long Bogenville island 1992-95, drawing a connection between the disposal of the notorious terrorist figurehead and the events of the Bougainville Civil War which saw Iroquois helicopters, on loan from the Australian government, used to dump the bodies of murdered civilians into the ocean following the violent St Valentine’s Day massacre.
Gende’s images are contemporary history paintings, diverging radically from the traditional canon yet remaining independent from the overriding political views of a governing body. They reflect the history of now – newspapers of a kind, recording the key global news stories as they occur. Yet, for Gende these events are remote and are thus distilled and digested using a local lexicon that brings them closer to home. His paintings underline the vastness of the world and of contemporary experience, while also reinforcing just how small the world has become.
Drill Hall Gallery
Australian National University
Susan Cochrane (1997) Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea, Craftsman House: Sydney See the adventurers own account: Michael Leahy (ed. Douglas Jones) (1994) Explorations into Highland New Guinea, 1930-1935, Crawford House Press: Bathurst First Contact (1983), motion picture, Ronin Films: Canberra ibid Paula Brown (1972) The Chimbu: a study of change in the New Guinea highlands, Schenkman Publishing Company: Cambridge, p. viii First Contact, op. cit.
Simon Gende, The US Army find Osama bin Laden hiding in a house and kill him 2013, acrylic on cotton duck