Whangarei Art Museum has had a longstanding tradition of presenting Pacific art since 1996 and a distinct curatorial ethos of weaving strands of ancient and modern worlds together- to delineate a creative whakapapa of old and new – opela and nupela in PNG pidgin language. Too often in New Zealand/Aotearoa exhibitions of Pacific art have neglected Papua New Guinea; a vibrant multiplicity of cultures which have adapted more lucidly and pragmatically to global culture than many in the Pacific. Museums across the world often have extensive collections of PNG artefacts collected by European and American adventurers. These are invariably held in the ethnology departments of university and municipal museums where, for many, they are the only holdings of Oceanic or Pacific art. Yet in New Zealand there have been very few, if any, serious exhibitions of contemporary PNG art let alone those that allow the past to resonate within the contemporary world of urban PNG painting and music.
This island nation is one of the largest and newest of the Pacific, but one of the most ancient in creative ancestry. Papua New Guinea was only established as an independent nation in 1975.
In New Zealand too, Maori and Pacific traditional arts have been the preserve of anthropology and ethnology departments, and not treated as a living and evolving artform at all.
The Te Maori exhibition in 1984 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York changed this viewpoint forever. Significantly, this exhibition returned to Aotearoa after a rousing tour of the United States of America to the Auckland Art Gallery (and NOT the Auckland Museum) where it garnered unprecedented crowds for an exhibition of New Zealand art. The traditional art objects in this exhibition Opela na Nupela are not merely ‘tribal art’ or artefacts –nor dismissively ‘primitive art’. They integrate practical and everyday objects and vessels, with a palpable narrative, ancestry and spiritual functionality from which they are inseparable. This is very different from a Westernised account of human culture. In fact the visual arts of the Pacific and Aotearoa are the visual articulation of memory and narrative in the same way that written languages of other cultures are perceived.
The Maria and Franz Iseke estate collection which makes up a large pert of the exhibition is a gift of over 200 artefacts, photographic archives, music and chant recordings and ephemera.
Franz and Maria were well known to the art museum having visited exhibitions regularly. After Franz died in 2011Maria and her family subsequently decided to gift a significant collection of Papua New Guinean and Melanesian artefacts to the Whangarei Art Museum collection. The collection itself encapsulates a love story, for Maria and Franz both met in Papua New Guinea in the mid-1970s and many of the artefacts were gifts to them both, with gratitude from the various indigenous communities they visited in the Highlands.
Franz Iseke arrived in New Zealand as a German immigrant in the early 1950s and established himself in Auckland as an admired modernist architect of domestic and commercial properties. In 1976, he was seconded to a position with the Ministry of Works in Lae, Papua New Guinea as Senior Engineer and architect. This was challenging terrain and more challenging times politically for PNG.
At the same time Maria was a German student of music, also seconded to Papua New Guinea by the Lutheran Church in Germany to record and research the music, chants, songs of worship and ceremony of the various hill tribes of the Western Highlands. She also documented the influence of the early Christian missionaries in the region. Maria and Franz met and married in Papua New Guinea, and often travelled together on their separate work assignments.
The collection includes many ‘museum quality’ artefacts including some very old, as well as more contemporary material. The collection is diverse and includes carvings and ceremonial ancestor images, domestic items including ceramics, fibre art, weapons, body adornment and status objects such as, tapa, shark teeth, boar’s teeth and Bird of Paradise feathers. It is fitting that the collection embraces both male and female artforms, and musical connections to Maria’s career. In Opela na Nupela we have grouped these thematically with contemporary paintings validating their continuing significance.
The exhibition is designed to showcase a selection of some of the strengths of the objects in the Iseke collection with groupings of contemporary art and music. The ceramic collection of PNG fired bowls and vessels on loan from the local Morrison collection complements the Iseke collection with contemporary art loans from Giles Peterson, Auckland and the NcNicholl Art Collection and The Kairos Oceania Trust.