Portraits from the Dance : Alotau Cultural Day, Port Moresby, PNG

Portrait: male dancer in Milne Bay face paint, Port Moresby PNG

Milne Bay Dancer
Festivals of music and dance are a great means of expressing and sharing cultural traditions. Here, a proud dancer from Milne Bay Province is ready to perform at a special Alotau Cultural Day in Port Moresby.

How can one talk about “the people” or “the culture” of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Comprising the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, it is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups and 852 known languages. And, who knows how many pockets of uncontacted peoples – with as yet unknown culture and languages – are still hidden in the interior jungles?

The coastal provinces of Oro and Milne Bay are home to people of Motu and Polynesian descent. In Milne Bay alone, the roughly 276,000 inhabitants speak about 48 different languages: mostly from the Eastern Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. In other words, most of these various groups are distinct, but have similarities to one other.

What little I knew about the coastal people of Papua New Guinea and their customs before I arrived in the country, I learned from Drusilla Mojeska’s wonderful 2012 novel: The Mountain.

Giving the reader a feel for the country’s tumultuous background, much of this book takes place across the five years leading up to Papua New Guinea‘s declaration of self-governance in 1973 after years of Australian administration and British rule. Although the characters are fictional, the story and the settings are firmly grounded in history and the author’s experience of having lived in the country during that time. 

It seemed to me, when I visited last year in August, that little had changed. The figurative road to democracy was still bumpy and fraught: results from the recently-held election were being fiercely (and sometimes, bloodily) contested. And the real roads outside the few urban centres continued to be predominantly unnavigable. The majority (over 85%) of people in the nation live a rural agrarian lifestyle outside the city. 

A festival of music, dance and food is one way that groups can share their distinctive cultures with each other. On my second day in Port Moresby on a Jim Cline tour with photographer Karl Grobl and a small group of photo-enthusiasts, I was treated to the Alotau Cultural Day.

This was the first of several sing-sings – or annual get-togethers of a few tribes or villages – that I attended while I was in PNG, and in some ways it was the most genuine. For while this gathering of performers from the Milne Bay area was not as polished or flashy as others I later attended in the Sepic River and Mount Hagen regions, it was aimed at the “city-folk” in Port Moresby in general, rather than us tourists in particular. As such, it felt like a authentic attempt to share and communicate one’s culture, rather than just a pitch for the tourist dollar.

Because of the relatively informal nature of the day, I had the opportunity to speak with many of the dancers and other participants at the festival. Some of the people I talked to were university students, happy to chat about how important it was to them to keep the traditional practices alive, and to talk about how involvement in music and dance added meaning to their lives, and helped keep young people focused and out of trouble.

Join me on a dusty sporting ground in the heat of a tropical summer day and meet just a small sampling of Papua New Guinea’s many different peoples.

Papuan Mother seated in grass with her toddler, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Tattooed Mother with Child
Everywhere I went in Papua New Guinea, people were happy to make eye contact with me, smile, and implicitly allow me to make pictures.

Portrait: Young Papuan man with a flag,, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Portrait: Male Dancer
Around the sporting field, young musicians and dancers wait in their costumes and body paint for their turn to perform.

Portrait: Young Papuan man with tattoos, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

“Support Crew”
Friends and family are in attendance to support the performers and to give them an audience. Tattoos – traditional and modern – are in evidence everywhere.

Young Papuan man an woman dancing with green branches, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Dancers
Meanwhile, with their drums and music as a backdrop, other groups take their turn on the “stage” – the stage being a grassy corner of the field. 

Portrait of Papuan woman wearing feathers in her hair and leaves around her neck and arms,, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Feathers and Leaves
Performers’ costumes feature local natural materials: bird of paradise feathers, seeds, leaves and grasses.

Portrait of Papuan woman in Milne Bay face paint, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Female Dancer
Some groups also feature face paint in traditional, stylised patterns. In this troupe, the men and women’s faces are painted on opposite sides.

Portrait of Papuan girls in Milne Bay face paint, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Children at the Stalls
Children at the stalls that skirt the field wear colourful face paint in different traditionally-inspired designs.

Smiling Papuan woman with hibiscus in her hair and betel stained teeth, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Stall Holder
Evidence of the effects of chewing the seeds of the Areca catechu palm tree – the ubiquitous betel nut – is in many of the smiles that greet me.

Papuan woman tending Skewers on the BBQ, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Skewers on the BBQ
A lot of the food on offer around the the perimeters of the field looks beautifully healthy and fresh.

Motorcycle or Motor Dance, Milne Bay dancers, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Motorcycle- or Motor-Dance
Anyone who has spent any time in a developing country knows how important small two-stroke motors are. I couldn’t understand the voice-over on the PA system, so I’m not sure exactly what type of motor the young man was pulling the starting chain on – but I was impressed to see the traditional dance-forms being used to tell modern stories.

Young Papuan child looking through a wire fence,

On the Outside
There was a small entry fee to the grounds; clearly not everyone could pay it.

Papuan man doing a Milne Bay war dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

War Dance
Every community has its own version of a war dance, and the various groups entered into these dances with gusto.

Papuan men doing a Milne Bay war dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

War Dance

Papuan man in war dance costume sitting on a bench, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Warrior in the Wings

Two Papuan women with their heads together trying to sort out necklaces of seed pods, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Heads Together

Two Papuan women with their heads together trying to sort out necklaces of seed pods, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Untangling the Seeds
With their heads together, two young women try to disentangle their necklaces.

Papuan women waiting to dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Faces in the Group

Papuan man in a feathered headdress, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Man in a Feathered Headdress
Feathers, bone, coral, shells, leaves and grasses are everywhere.

Papuan girl in a feathered headdress, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Young Girl
The dancers start young!

Papuan women waiting to dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Hair and Feathers
As the hot sun climbs overhead, it bounces of curls …

Papuan women waiting to dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Young Woman in Feathers
…  and feathers.

Papuan men doing a Milne Bay war dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

War Dance
Another group of warriors in grass skirts and boar teeth …

Papuan man doing a Milne Bay war dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Warrior
… take to the “stage” with their spears.

Papuan man doing a Milne Bay war dance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Another Warrior 
The young men put a lot of energy into their threatening advances. Meanwhile, the young women behind have mouths full of betel.

All the people I spoke to were eager to invite me share their beautiful corner of the country. A couple of young men even told me where to find the birds of paradise: just follow the path around the bay, then turn left. The birds are right there!

Towards the end of my trip, I did enjoy a blissful couple of days in their native Milne Bay Province (see: Innocent Eyes and Head Hunters), and – even though I never found the birds – I can concur: it is a most beautiful place.

To the Future (text)

I hope these young people continue to maintain the best things from their rich traditions.

Until next time!

Pictures: 12August2017 

  • Jan Lively - February 13, 2018 - 5:15 pm

    Oh Ursula, you never cease to amaze me. Thank you thank you for your most recent trip down memory lane, this lane and memory of PNG. I love your history lesson and narrative, and of course, the great pics too. you are truly an inspiration. Hope you and Gabe are well and having yet more fun and adventures. We are good here in Florida and soon off on our 3-month Utah adventure. Hugs and thanks, JanReplyCancel

    • Ursula - February 13, 2018 - 10:08 pm

      Hi Jan,
      Many thanks for your lovely comments! We are road-tripping a lot at the moment, but off on a European adventure soooooon …
      Have a wonderful time in Utah – Love to you both! xReplyCancel

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