Professor Konai Helu Thaman of USP’s School of Education as part of her presentation.
The story of Oceanic cultures and their arts is a story of struggle, a story that has continued to go unheard, not for a lack of tellers but a lack of listeners.
This was the sentiment expressed by Professor Konai Helu Thaman, renowned Pacific poet and educator for over four (4) decades during her presentation at the second seminar on “Our Sea of Islands” held at The University of the South Pacific’s (USP) Laucala Campus on 9 May 2018, as part of its 50th Anniversary celebrations.
The Seminar Series attempts to capture the line of regional thinking, advocated by the late Professor Epeli Hau’ofa in his seminal essay of the same title, which was published as part of the University’s 25th Anniversary.
As part of her presentation at the Seminar themed at “Heritage, Art and Sustainability”, Professor Thaman said that perhaps the time now is ripe for the people of Oceania to start listening more closely to one another's stories.
She highlighted that the impetus for higher education development in Oceania ostensibly arose from the need for Pacific colonial powers to hand over the administration of Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to Pacific peoples themselves as long as the wise counsel of ex-masters were heeded.
“The establishment of University of Papua New Guinea and USP was based on the assumption that students learning in their own cultural contexts and where possible, in their own languages, were more likely to be successful than if they were educated in a monolingual, mono-cultural educational environment,” Professor Thaman said.
Among many difficulties, Professor Thaman shared that one of the major challenges faced by Pacific literary artists, especially writers is the confidence in their ability to write their own stories without looking over their shoulders to see what the critics are doing or what other writers are writing.
“Many of us, for example, for obvious reasons seek to be published by overseas presses although this usually means that the cost of our books becomes too prohibitive for most of our people, especially students,” she added.
Back in the days, the concern with the creation, study and promotion of Pacific arts and literature was not fully supported within the formal education sector for some time.
(From L-R): Mr Simione Sevudredre (iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture), Professor Konai Helu Thaman (USP – School of Education), Dr Frances Cresantia Koya Vaka’uta, (USP -Oceania Centre), and Mr Colin Yabaki (Department of Heritage and Arts).
Professor Thaman shared that it took USP around thirty (30) years to approve a Centre for Arts and Culture, and despite its popularity and attractiveness to both students and members of the wider community, it continued to be seen by many as a place of music, dance and entertainment, not as serious as what goes on in the Faculties, Schools and Institutes.
She is hopeful for what education in general and USP in particular might be able to do now and in the next few years to value the Arts and Cultures of Oceania, including the knowledge and value systems associated with them, and to make them integral parts of its teaching, learning and research.
Dr Frances Cresantia Koya Vaka’uta, Director of Oceania Centre said that the way people think about heritage, arts and sustainability today, are all inevitably framed by global narratives and definitions, which do not match cultural ways of seeing, knowing and being in the world.
Too often, Dr Vaka’uta added that these definitions and narratives are framed in development and economic terms alienating the wider community from engaging in meaningful conversations about culture and the arts sector in general, and more specifically, the role of culture and the arts in education and research.
She noted that the colonial legacy has reduced public conversations about the arts into two (2) main spaces outside the cultural community.
On one hand, our “relics” are put on display on walls, stripped of their spiritual cultural meaning and misinterpreted by so called experts or they are displayed for sale on makeshift tables or floors targeting predominantly the tourist market.
“Both of these spaces are alien in that, in our living memory, they were set up as physical places where outsiders could exoticise our heritage by viewing, discussing or purchasing items of interest and sadly, many continue to refer to heritage arts as handicrafts and only recently have we adopted the slightly less aggravating term of crafts,” she said.
The other two (2) guest speakers were Mr Simione Sevudredre, Acting Principal Administrative Officer at the iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture, who spoke about his institute’s role in preserving the iTaukei culture and language, and the processes involved in updating and editing entries into the iTaukei monolingual Dictionary; and Mr Colin Yabaki, Director of the Department of Heritage and Arts at the Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts who presented on his Department’s nature of work and World Heritage in Fiji, together with the role of Fijian Government in World Heritage.
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