The Future of Our Identity – The Business of Arts & Culture

(Presented today at the 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts & Culture Symposium, Holiday Inn)

Picture by Julia Mageau, Sunameke
Picture by Julia Mageau, Sunameke

Wabigep. Nape Wosik, which simply means in my father’s language of Arapesh along the West Coast of Sepik, Good Afternoon and Hope You are Well.

My name is Emmanuel Narokobi, I am half East Sepik Province from Wautogik Village in Dagua and half Morobe Province from Yawara village, along the Waria River. I am the Managing Director of Masalai Communications a digital media company based in Port Moresby.

We all have our cultures and we must remember that carrying it with you today is not a black and white affair. I could say that it comes in many shades of grey but that would be underestimating its true effect on us, rather it comes in blooms of colours much like our flowers when it dazzles and affects us and those around us at a time and place either when we’re ready or not.

Now let’s leave PNG and wider Melanesia for a while and lets go back in time to the places of Florence and Rome in Europe during the 14th century. Everyone has heard of the great Renaissance, that rebirth of the arts and science and everyone has heard the names of the great Western Artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci but what is little known was that the great Renaissance and these artists had a corporate sponsor.

The House of Medici was a political dynasty, banking family and later royal house that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the late 14th century and carried on until the 17th Century. The family originated in the Mugello region of the Tuscan countryside, gradually rising from their textile trade origins until they were able to fund the Medici Bank. Besides introducing the world to the double entry bookkeeping system, they produced four Popes and various politicians and royals. This powerful family had a direct hand in commissioning and financially supporting the most talented artists of that time and it was through this sponsorship environment that the Renaissance was ignited.

Back here in PNG and wider Melanesia we do not have a version of the House of Medici. Our big banks with their K300 million plus annual profits do not directly support our Arts & Culture, our politicians barely support our Arts & Culture and even our Churches do not directly support our Arts & Culture.

So what we are left with are pockets of projects that are initiated by individuals and small groups that exist for a short time and then are forgotten. But why is it important to nurture our Arts and Culture in the first place? Why do we need Cultural Projects?

Cultural Projects be they dance, songs, tapa cloth making, tattoos and so on are all expressions of ideas. These ideas have been shaped by thousands of years of culture and ‘Pasin’ and these are the very ideas that we identify with and cling onto in our lives. These are the colours of our culture that we carry around with us each day as our identity.

However the environment where these ideas existed and were ultimately expressed has changed drastically over the last 30 years alone. The utility of the ideas, their purpose and the practice of expressing these ideas today has in many ways become more about sustaining them rather than practicing them because a modern western focused life in many ways separates us from our identities. These ideas being the core of our identity gets lost in a world where we are measured by how much money we have, what type of clothes we wear or how well we speak English.

This is of course an age old problem with any culture and it is not exclusively a PNG issue, but it is in modern life and in modern life’s tools and practices that we will need to find solutions to make sustaining our identity an everyday practice. The great Melanesian leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou once stated, “The return to tradition is a myth… No people has ever achieved that. The search for identity, for a model: I believe it lies ahead of us… Our identity lies ahead of us.”

If our identity lies ahead of us, what do we have to do today to get there?

Cultural Projects are the only way the entire nation can individually make those small steps towards sustaining our identity in this modern world, be it as an artist or as a consumer of the project. So whether we like it or not each project has to be either sponsored or be financially sustainable.

Perfect examples today are artists like: Julia Maqeau and her modern interpretations of traditional dance; popular PNG musical artist Tati and his jazz infusion with traditional Manus song; Martin Tonny and his artistic directorial work for the launch performance of our 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts & Culture; Florence Jaukae and her bilum wear; Sarah Todd and PNG’s first fashion wear entry into the preeminent Fiji Fashion Week show and Amanda Donigi and Stella magazine.

What is common amongst all these artists and other urban/rural based cultural projects are that, these are all small scale projects or Small to Medium Businesses. So like any other project, business or idea today and in order to turn it into something tangible we are forced to learn on the job the practices of Management, Marketing, Media and learning about ourselves in terms of what we want to get out of these cultural projects.

At Masalai Communications we have worked on various media projects, while some have been purely commercial such as our website and database development with the PNG LNG Project. Some have also been culturally personal such as the digitizing of my father’s Arapesh language with Lise Dobrin from the University of Virginia in the United States of America. However being small and without adequate financing we have attempted to innovate as much as possible. We were the first to do Digital Signage in PNG, we were the first to do SMS campaigns in PNG with Ice Discovered in 2005 and we were one of the first to start blogging about PNG on the Masalai blog.

We have recently been short listed to Broadcast the Pacific Games to Big Screens in the Provinces so we await a final decision on this and more recently we have started a question and answer panel TV Show in partnership with Coffey International for the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) called Tanim Graun. Tanim Graun goes to air on EMTV in late July.

At the heart of it I want to somehow showcase Julia and Martins modern traditional dance in short video clips online, I want to be able to have Tati’s music available on mobile phones, I’d like to see Joyce and Sarah setting up e-commerce sites with mobile payments and I’d love to do a Stella TV show, but what I am finding out throughout my work is that getting the business models right and the industry models right will be the ultimate conduit for bridging the artists we have and their markets.

In looking at a business model we are now nearly complete with the setting up of our Value Added Service mobile content platform on bmobile. Masalai’s aim will be to be able to take the various cultural projects happening around PNG and wider Melanesia and to be able to deliver all of them and/or interact with them in some shape or form through mobile phones.

In PNG’s population of 7.3 million people there are up to 3 million people with mobile phones. Up to 280,000 are on facebook and IPBC/Data Co. are completing the National Broadband Network later this year. In other words the tools of today to showcase our Cultural Projects have only scratched the surface. We may not have a House of Medici to sponsor our PNG Renaissance but our artists and SME’s can be assured that with the rising tide of opportunities through technology we have a better assurance that our identity being built, practiced and sustained in our cultural projects has a better chance of taking us to the Future of our Identity.