REPORTER: David O’Shea
Melbourne art gallery owner Neil McLeod is so excited about what he’s about to see, he’s talked himself hoarse.
Neil is on a mission to preserve a part of Papua New Guinea’s cultural heritage.
NEIL MCLEOD, ART COLLECTOR: They’re putting the head dresses on at the moment. There’s meticulous detail in the face painting.
This is what Neil wants to preserve – a men’s spirit house, or haus tambaran, in the east Sepik region. Today we’re witnessing the last initiation ceremony to be held at this haus tambaran. Inside are the wood carvings which symbolise the spirit ancestors of the clan. Dressed up, these men represent those spirits.
It’s pretty scary stuff for the young and uninitiated, who’ve been taught to fear what is now emerging from the building. 30 years ago, there were scores of haus tambaran in this area, but as PNG develops, these important buildings are disappearing. Some have been burned or torn down at the encouragement of Christian missionaries. Others are just left to decay.
This is now the last remaining haus tambaran still in use in the east Sepik. Neil McLeod came up with the idea of buying it and taking it to his Melbourne gallery.
NEIL MCLEOD: My gallery in Melbourne houses already a beautiful Oceanic collection. At least in the museum situation it’s being preserved. It wouldn’t have been preserved out in the bush. And a lot of these pieces were meant to decay in the bush too. They’d finish with them – they’d burn them or whatever. A lot of people have modern boats, they’ve got outboard motors and they need fuel for them, so they’re selling some of the carvings now and I’m helping preserve those carvings, in my modest way.
Sebastian Haraha is from the National Museum in Port Moresby. He helped arrange the sale of the haus tambaran after Neil promised to preserve it in Melbourne.
SEBASTIAN HARAHA, NATIONAL MUSEUM PORT MORESBY: They are dying out. Some people may take it as a joke, but in reality, men’s houses are dying out. Which means the ceremonies associated with these men’s houses are also dying out. You see there with the piece of white cloths on their head? They go into the men’s house.
NEIL MCLEOD: Some of the little boys don’t know what they’re in for. They’ve got curious looks on their faces. They’re really scared, thinking, “What’s inside this big building?” They’ve never seen it. This is their first big day.
An initiation ceremony like this is held once every generation, a major milestone in a boy’s passage into manhood. The last such ceremony was held 15 years ago. Today the men who went through the last ceremony will take their sons inside for the first time.
Once they’ve passed through the haus tambaran and seen the spirit world, the boys are forbidden to talk about what they’ve seen. Their ancestral secrets are taken very seriously, and are not to be shared with women or the uninitiated.
SEBASTIAN HARAHA: If uninitiated sees it, he has to compensate – he has to pay – kill a pig for it. If he does not – he’s normally given a month or so – if he does not do it, he’ll be killed, because he might tell other people about what happens inside, what is inside.
But some of those passing through are not taking things as seriously as they should. And some of these children are much too young to be initiated. These indiscretions are too much for Kawi, a practitioner of black magic and the gatekeeper of the haus tambaran.
REPORTER: What was all that about?
NEIL MCLEOD: Some of the people haven’t done it according to the tradition. He’s the boss and he knows the way it should be done and he’s upset because people didn’t perform quite as he expected them to do. So he’s telling them, “This is our tradition. “You’ve got to do it right way.”
This chant is a lament that the young people are losing the secrets of the ‘myra’ or spirit world. For these elders it must be very hard to come to terms with the loss of traditions that they grew up with. It’s a source of tension within the clan. The man with the coconut is a Christian and he, like many here, has been taught to reject the sorcery and black magic of Kawi, the gatekeeper.
MAN, (Translation): Go away. Shut your mouth.
KAWI, (Translation): Don’t interrupt me. I’m trying to give an example. You shut up! I’m not scared of you. You go away. I can have power over you with magic.
ELDER, (Translation): I have something to say. Listen!
Some of the elders here are more pragmatic. They know that their world has changed forever and the time for black magic has passed.
ELDER, (Translation): Let’s look at traditional medicine for the sicknesses that are coming from the town. Men are dying, women and children are dying. The doctor has to look into that. Black magic is now finished. If you want to keep practising the custom, come and pick this up and go.
But it seems nobody is prepared to take on the challenge. There are various reasons for the rapid demise of traditional belief systems throughout Papua New Guinea, but a key factor is the spread of Christianity.
PASTOR: Well, I’m telling you there’s a revival taking place right now. There’s a transformation taking place right now. Amen.
A few kilometres away from the haus tambaran is an Assembly of God church.
PASTOR: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The pastor here says the traditional ways are the wrong way.
PASTOR: You don’t want to have somebody come up and cause murder, take somebody else’s wife, you know, do all this other stuff. That in itself is paganism in the sense that it’s really not causing a good status of our lives.
Many churches in PNG would be happy to see the end of traditional culture. Another pastor told Sebastian Haraha from the museum that he wanted to get rid of his village’s haus tambaran.
SEBASTIAN HARAHA: The first thing he said was “Burn the men’s house down, the spirit house down, and build a church over it, because that’s an evil place, it’s an evil house.” Our traditional men’s houses, our spirit houses, are just simply like churches. When there were no missionaries here, our people survived from the nature, the environment. They believed in it. Men’s houses were spirit houses, were places where they communicate with the spirits.
Sebastian accuses the pentecostal churches of hypocrisy. He says that they tell villagers to destroy their idols, but collect them themselves. One mission, known as New Tribes, has recently been applying for export licences to take traditional artefacts out of PNG. Sebastian is the government officer in charge of granting those export licences.
REORTER: You’ve seen those applications?
SEBASTIAN HARAHA: Well, yes, and they provide photographs to me.
REPORTER: Of the artefacts?
SEBASTIAN HARAHA: Yes, they send them through emails. I don’t know if they are going to make money out of it or they’re going to look at it, or just decorate their houses.
Here in the east Sepik, it’s money, not religion, that’s bringing the house down. It seems ironic that the process Neil McLeod has begun to preserve these people’s culture involves what appears to be a speeding up of its demise.
NEIL MCLEOD: The people are quite happy for it to go, though. They’re finished with it.
REPORTER: But don’t you see the irony?
NEIL MCLEOD: Absolutely, I see the irony. And I’ve often – I’ve questioned it a lot myself, I really have. It’s all going to go to ruin there. It’s just going to fall down. There’ll be nothing left.
REPORTER: But isn’t that the whole point – that what comes from the earth returns to the earth?
NEIL MCLEOD: I know, and I completely agree that not every house should be preserved. Many places I’ve gone where I haven’t photographed it. The people didn’t wish to be photographed. But the people here are just a little bit different. I think it’s the monetary aspect that they like too. They like receiving the money for it. They’re glad to sell it.
But as the building is dismantled for Neil to take away, one elder questions the deal that’s been struck with the Melbourne gallery owner.
ELDER, (Translation): Mr Neil was promised the contents inside, not outside. If he wants both, we have to come up with a price. Inside, the money is mine. If not, I won’t sell what’s inside and Mr Neil can only have what’s outside.
It’s left to Neil’s art collector friend Harold Gallash to calm things down.
HAROLD GALLASH, (Translation): Before, when we sat down, I heard you all and Neil said he would buy the whole spirit house. He’s not buying half, not just the inside. He’s buying the whole house. Now you’re changing it, saying the outside and inside are different prices. That’s not fair.
ELDER, (Translation): I was at the first meeting and I was there for the second one. There was a lot of talk but I didn’t know what price had been agreed. But you will take it away and you’re going to take away a part of me. You will take me away.
NEIL MCLEOD: Finished? Finished. We’re all happy.
In the end, the original deal prevails – 20,000 kina, around $10,000, buys both the facade and the carvings inside the haus tambaran and it will be left to the elders to decide how the money is divided.
NEIL MCLEOD: We’re all finished now till the next time.
REPORTER: You mean the next time you undergo…
NEIL MCLEOD: The next time I undergo one of these projects, oh, boy, I’ll have some serious thinking to do. This is really – you know – not really. It’s not hard to solve. It’s just wading through it all. Protocol. I respect protocol. This has cost me dearly, this project, it really has. I’ve had to beg and borrow from friends all around Melbourne, you know, selling off beautiful paintings that I had just to acquire the money to come and acquire this place. And, who knows, I’ve got it sitting in a container now and I’m thinking, “Where’s it going? Is it going to go to Melbourne? Is it going to go to America?” I’ve had interest from an organisation in America,
REPORTER: Interest from America? Isn’t that sort of a breach of the agreement?
NEIL MCLEOD: Well, not really. I think the people are interested just that the house is preserved. Where it goes is probably irrelevant. It’s what I can actually afford, too. I’m not a wealthy person, as I said.
REPORTER: But this organisation in America, are they a non-profit organisation too?
NEIL MCLEOD: Well, there are a few organisations that have expressed interest and I don’t know whether they’re profit or non-profit organisations. I think if it was set up and it was a profit-making thing, some more funds might be sent back to the village, royalties or something, as an ongoing thing. That’s the way I worked with –
REPORTER: So it’s not as clear-cut as I believed, that it was definitely not to be sold?
NEIL MCLEOD: My dream is for it to go to my gallery. That’s what I want. And I achieve a lot of my dreams.
ELDERS, (Translation): Is that correct? Is the other deposit done? With this amount, that 17,000 plus the deposit … is that correct? Everybody happy? Anything more to say? Is the money side all OK? All the talk has finished.
Despite the sale of their haus tambaran, many here refuse to believe their culture is dying.
ELDER, (Translation): I will hold on to this custom. I will not let it go. If I do, I will worry. I must hold on to it. If I die, my children will hold on to it. If they die, their children will hold on to it. It will continue. From generation to generation, it will continue. It will stay like that.
NEIL MCLEOD: Go inside and we’ll start wrapping up the stuff.
In addition to purchasing the spirit house, Neil is collecting many other carvings to sell back in Melbourne. But after earlier indicating that he might be forced to sell the haus tambaran and its contents as well, he assures me at the end of our interview he will not.
NEIL MCLEOD: They will all be kept, they won’t be sold, definitely not. The other pieces that I’m buying, some of them may be sold to fund the project. I respect that, absolutely.
REPORTER: So you’re guaranteeing that you…
NEIL MCLEOD: I am guaranteeing that.
REPORTER: What would you feel if you heard that one of the pieces had been sold?
SEBASTIAN HARAHA: I’d be really hurt. I’d be hurt. Because if he want to maintain – help our people, help Papua New Guinea maintain such important cultural building then he needs to keep his word. But if he sells one of the pieces, I will personally be really hurt.
REPORTER: What are you going to do with all this stuff?
NEIL MCLEOD: This will be left to future generations. I’ll gift it to the trust foundation of the gallery where I am so it’s for generations in the future to see this beautiful art. It’s not going to be sold, this. It’s beautiful. Every one. Come and have a look. I appreciate all this beautiful work you do. Some pieces will go to my house, just a few pieces, so I can remember.