My Mum Elvie would draw lines. Lines that represented the coastline, curved lines for the palm trees with smaller lines for the bushy branches and leaves. A big sun in the sky and waves in the sea. Mum would draw a turtle and ask me, ‘Ella, what is this?’ My earliest memory of creating art in a familial context was when I was about four years old. Mum would draw simple pictures of nature and wildlife from back home. She drew them to teach me about symbol, meaning, connection and where her heart lay. Back home.
My parents migrated to Australia from Papua New Guinea in 1988. My father Alan, an Australian of English/Irish descent, had gone to Papua New Guinea as a teacher. Mum and I are Wadubo women; my Bubus (Grandparents) are from Wamira Village in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. We come from a long line of artisans, weavers, dancers, singers, gardeners, fishermen, carvers and storytellers.
Mum has always encouraged me to make art. I would study the objects in my surroundings; our home was Mum’s ‘home away from home’. I grew up in a tropical treasure chest of cultural knowledge. Natural fibre string and woven bags, hand woven fishing nets/trappings hung on the walls, woven placemats decorated doorways, clay pots, large fishing baskets under tables, wooden spears, large konch and other shells arranged on benches, carved vases, wooden turtles, dolphins, a shark with real teeth sat on shelves and window sills, necklaces and tapa cloths were displayed with consideration and sentiment. It was a working class suburban brick veneer built in the 1970s in Melbourne’s east. It was cold but our house was always thirty- one degrees and green.
Mum never had time to discover her own abilities with art until she turned fifty and decided to paint. She was raising a family, taking care of Dad, working, and making a home. She was also, and continues to, maintain the strongest of bonds with family ‘back home’.
It was this year, 2018, when I joined the New Wayfinders Pasifika Art Collective, that I decided to encourage Mum to take part as well. We exhibited side by side in the art show titled Ocean Stories from Home.
My mother chose to share paintings in the exhibition that honour women closest to her, some deceased and others still growing. Her paintings give endless life to symbols of love, unity, care and friendship. Flowers in vases accompanied by lime pots, seed rattles, bagis (the traditional shell necklace that is representative of our province) and carved coconut ladles are presented together, still life combinations of gifts and objects significant to her.
Mum took this opportunity to not only share her paintings but also to showcase the beautiful handicrafts of her mother and Aunty Pauline, her sister, who was a Papua New Guinean artist in her own right. Both created with beauty and intention; Bubu Mummy would relax and meditate between chores, weaving beautiful mats, fishnets, bags and placemats that were sold to put food on the table and pay for school fees. Artistic objects designed for practical use. The humble teapot is Mum’s prized possession. She inherited this from her mother who had nourished and warmed every heart that had entered her home for over forty years. The Kaukau print canvas was inspired by the technique my Aunty Pauline had developed into textile designs in the 1960s. This same fabric was exhibited adjacent, marking my late Aunty’s first exhibition in Australia.
All my life I dug for answers and in turn found artistic inspiration from family photographs, old Lae High School magazines, Paradise magazines from Air Niugini aircrafts and anecdotal evidence of first-hand knowledge of culture and traditions from ‘back home’. I am an artist, poet, teacher, hair and makeup artist. My mediums are painting, photography, video, collage, poetry and writing.
For the Ocean Stories from Home exhibition, I shared rites of passage and documented the re-emergence of our traditional dance ritual. The Wadubo Cultural Group made up of my family members in Wamira Village have reignited this form of expression and storytelling. My Uncle Masaro shared with me how the Tawara, a costume worn by men while dancing, was constructed and gave me permission to share images and videos of it with the outside world for the first time! These adornments are taboo to touch unless they are yours. To be in the presence of such symbolic and magic-laden natural fibres was an honour and a privilege. A short video interview with my Uncle Masaro shared the meanings of the dances, what they represent, how the tradition has changed over time due to invasion by the European missionaries and the importance of continuing to practice what is our origin. Disclaimer: he didn’t tell me everything, and I didn’t tell everything that he told me. This is how we keep our custom and culture alive.
My cousin Gabriel who had been my closest companion during my visit ‘back home’ was present during all the documenting and played a pivotal role in supporting me during my lessons in the village. Gabriel wore the Tawara for me to photograph, and this image became the inspiration for my portrait painting on plywood of him, our peoples’ future generation, capturing the passing on of knowledge from an elder to the youth. He also brought to my attention the great divide in our/my worlds. My iPhone was a source of constant interest and curiosity for all the children, especially Gabriel. Later, I found selfies he had taken in an outfit that resembled his late father, my Uncle Wallace. I couldn’t resist sharing how a fourteen-year-old village boy saw himself through a device so foreign to him, and yet learnt within minutes how to use it, capturing an honest and emotional moment that mirrored my experience of seeing myself through my original culture and learning how to appreciate it. Records of self-awareness and identity exploration.
Will he ever own an iPhone? I hope not. Will I ever dance with my people? No, I won’t. Because although our worlds collide and our roots remain firmly in Wamira, my world is here and his is there. As an artist who has learnt how to create and document, I also know when to draw the line in the sand. Our culture and way of life is slowly dying, we must preserve it, not look at it for self-gain but to consider the collective impact of our actions. Mum and I continually work to build sustainable supports for our family through nourishing culture, education and art both here and ‘back home’.
Ella Benore Rowe is a multidisciplinary artist and poet with cultural lineage from Papua New Guinea, England and Ireland. Her work responds to her life experiences, evolution through womanhood and an ongoing exploration of identity.