Rethinking Women in PNG – an art exhibition

by Peter Leo Ella

 Exhibition: The National Library, 19th May -4th June 2011

Melanesian welcoming ceremony: Saturday 28th May 2011(2-5pm)

The three organizations invited some of the prominent PNG artists to display their works relating to awareness of gender issues in PNG. The artists, in their previous and current works have called for a redefinition of the role and identity of women in the country, and they will be displaying their art work to foster such an undertaking.

In this exhibition, which first version was presented to the public on the occasion of Europe Day (9th May), the PNG artists wanted to express various points of view on the condition of women in the country. The exhibition starts with a call for reflection (Alex Mebri) followed by an opening dance (Andrew Kaianu). The first section of the exhibition deals with contrasted views on Modern PNG women. Chris Kauage and John Danger are rethinking an iconographic view of women launched about 20 years ago by Matthias Kauage. In showing that modern women of PNG are divided between contemporary and tradition, both artists are advocating for more freedom to be given to women. For them men of this country shall acknowledge the contribution of women to the development of Papua New Guinea. Eddie Tommy and Peter Leo Ella are proposing a more controversial vision of women. The impact of modernity is not without dramatic consequences. Many women are stressed between incompatible forms of commitments: towards their family and their aspiration for public and economic recognition. The group of graffiti artists invited by Peter Leo Ella is fully assuming new women’s role in society. In doing so, they demonstrate the view of PNG women to be part of the modern world.

The following section is a tribute to traditional women in PNG. It includes an important painting of Martin Morububuna who highlights the role of women as mothers. The painting is framed by paintings by Venantius Gadd and Joe Mek. In the first Venantius Gadd is referring to mystical women in rituals of the region of Bogia (Madang Province). He reminds us of the many different roles performed by women in a local context. Joe Mek offers us an ideal and peaceful vision of women in a domestic context. The woman is here a mother, a daughter and a sister. This ideal vision of women is also depicted by the young artist Duru Kaianu where a woman is featured in an idealized landscape.

The next picture challenged the previous assumptions is being a kind of disguised self portrait. She reminds us through her highly focused image of a woman that women stand for themselves in Papua New Guinea. In this striking and vibrant picture she challenged that women are not only “in between” men. She feels that to be a woman today is a combination of modernity and tradition and it is that particular balance which gives women their strength and value.

The two last paintings by Jeffry Feeger and Ratoos are using subtle metaphor to question the role of women in PNG. For the first, the artist wonders about the future of women in confronting visitors to a monumental image of two young sisters. In showing a very immediate vision of modern girls from Bougainville he asks more general question about the context in which people built their future. The very large canvas proposed by Ratoos, an artist from the Gulf Province is a general statement about women’s condition. For him, women are like turtles who dwell in the large ocean and never forget the place where they grew up.  He questions the facility of women to be everywhere and to build a home in every place. This metaphor is very suitable in Modern PNG a country where people have to find new homes and new identities and a changing context.

The artists are mindful of the fact that there are challenges and obstacles in achieving gender equality and they feel that they are the catalyst that will address those challenges and obstacles and to drive the gender equality agenda forward. Local artists have successfully articulated the national mood when they designed the Parliament House. They are now being called to articulate what is means to be a woman in PNG as a source of inspiration for the rest of the population.

To welcome visitors, artists and their family will bring traditional Melanesian food. In doing so they would like to demonstrate their inscription at the heart of contemporary Papua New Guinean society. They also would like to perform through their gift of food and through the presentation of their artwork a blend of traditional practices and contemporary commitments.

List of artists

  • Mrs Kawaiwan Yai pupu
  • Mr. Martin Morububuna
  • Mr. Gickmai Kundun
  • Mr. Jeffry Feeger
  • Mr. Rattoos
  • Mr. Eddie Tommy
  • Mr. Alex Mebri
  • Mr. Peter Leo Ella
  • Mr. Venantius Gadd
  • Mr. Joe Mek
  • Mr. Andrew Kaianu
  • Mr. Duru Kaianu
  • Mr John Danger
  • Mr Laben Sakale

Media Contact: or

Download the program sheet here


The Anthropology, Sociology and Archaeology strand

of the University of Papua New Guinea

 The National Library

With the support of the

Delegation of the European Union to Papua New Guinea

Organized the exhibition




5 thoughts on “Rethinking Women in PNG – an art exhibition

  1. This is an exciting exhibition. I am sorry that I will only be able to enjoy it on Facebook….good wishes to all the artists. Pamela Rosi

    1. It is a great exhibition but i cannot understand a few things;
      Firstly why is that men need to define womens experience? In addition why have you not included any female artists to tell you first hand what it is like to live in contemporary society in PNG?

      1. Hi Jules,

        Yes great question, it is indeed not evident by the above descriptions and one could easily come to such conclusions.

        Dr Nicolas Garnier was the lead curator and wrote the above description. A small group of artists including myself where able to help him out. For the exhibition to happen it required several meetings, in which we discussed all possibilities. The topic of ‘re-thinking women’ was chosen I believe because at the time there was a women’s conference and the topic was being widely highlighted. Female artist Gazzella Bruder was involved and was unfortunately unable to deliver a finished piece for the exhibition due to other commitments.

        Of course the question and concerned was raised to have more women artist representation and every effort was made to put the word out and contact female artists. We had a few women put there hands up but unfortunately they did not deliver with the only exception being the young Kawaiwan Yapupu. Dr Nicolas Garnier describes her work above; “The next picture challenged the previous assumptions is being a kind of disguised self portrait. She reminds us through her highly focused image of a woman that women stand for themselves in Papua New Guinea. In this striking and vibrant picture she challenged that women are not only “in between” men. She feels that to be a woman today is a combination of modernity and tradition and it is that particular balance which gives women their strength and value.”

        With the disappointing female representation, one has to ask, what is the future of female participation in contemporary art in PNG? The once vibrant female artistic expression in the country has in recent times taken the backseat to things like motherhood and other demands and interests in life. I have been part of the contemporary art scene in PNG for over 10 years and I have seen female artists come and go, rising to international heights and then disappear leaving us all wondering what has become of them, with the exception of a few devoted souls, such as the prolific dot painter Winnie Weoa. To be known and recognized in this field requires a certain level of consistency and devotion to one’s craft regardless of gender.

        With the many different topics available to us artists to consider for such an exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised to the fact that the majority of male artists were in agreement to take on the issue of re-thinking women, many saw it as a challenge (knowing full well that they where putting at risk their mainstream incomes by creating non commercial work) It required them to think outside their usual box and talk about a relevant social topic of changes of women in their society. From my point of view, watching this whole exhibition unfold, such thinking and action taken by the male artists in this exhibition should be commended. It is indeed a considerable brave step forward in trying to revive social commentary in the arts of PNG.

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