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Keeping the Massim canoe art of PNG alive

18 October 2017   |   Commentary   |   By John Greenshields

John Greenshields reflects on his experiences in PNG documenting the unique canoe art of the Massim Islands. 

Epoi style canoe at Waluma East village
Image: John Greenshields
Epoi style canoe at Waluma East village

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    In August 2017 eight people, including myself, spent the month in the tropical waters of Papua New Guinea. It was an extraordinary month in an amazing setting, with wonderful exchanges between us and the villagers at every stop. This was a serious tour, taking in many islands that few ever visit.  Our travel took us through the Massim Islands, leaving Milne Bay by motor launch for the Louisiades and the Engineer Group, Conflict Group and Calvados Chain, back to Alotau, north via Dobu and Fergusson Islands to Kitava in the Trobriands, then across via the Marshall Bennett Group to Woodlark, and finally returning through Nasikwabau and Egum atoll. A map of our journey can be found here

    We saw world-class areas of coral, divine atolls, steep limestone cliffs, jungle, and then, through the engaging people we encountered at every island, we found other things. We went through places remote enough not to have known the election result from ten days earlier, villages where it was two years since the last white people had visited, locations where not much had been fixed since the 2014 cyclone, communities with a nurse or paramedic but nothing more than Panadol to dispense.  We saw the contrast of a blue-water tropical paradise supporting communities close to subsistence with little prospect of any immediate improvement or outside help that might make things better. There was no cash economy on most islands, being so remote.

    We saw all of this because we were more than just tourists looking on and taking it back home on the camera. The eight of us were following a strong interest in the Massim culture’s sophisticated canoes with the stunning art and symbolism that comes with them. With the people’s permission we were taking this knowledge back as notes, sketches and drawings to record properly and in due course would return copies of these records of their stories and their craft to them. This approach opened doors and brought us to people who could show us their life as it is, and as it was.  

    Massim art is known worldwide as a rich source of delicate and symbolic work in many mediums and forms of expression, but an area that is a major art form with a scarce amount of documentation is their canoes. The old war canoes of Milne Bay, and the trading canoes connected to the Kula cycle, carried expertly carved boards with significant meaning in their detailed symbols, showing the diverse styles of the carvers and their communities, all carried on watercraft that have their own impressive look and presence, and that comes from sophisticated design and construction. 

    To record all of this, you must ask permission first because you are coming into another culture, their life, and you are from another place entirely.  Explaining why we were interested in recording their craft, their carvings and symbols was a key to the process. Our Papua New Guinean skipper Obedi was always first to engage with each community and its leader, explaining the visit and gaining permission, introducing us and ensuring each visit began with respect from everyone. Every time they then welcomed us into the village, sought out elders to meet us, found artefacts stored away to explain, offered canoes to be recorded with their owners’ permission, the builder if he was there would come too. They even took us sailing. We exchanged food and other items, bought some artefacts that were offered, and agreed on a fee for their services when appropriate. In a couple of instances our first aid qualified member helped with issues where we could provide some assistance to the villages from our resources.  We gave outboard fuel and other help so that they could go fishing further afield, and in return share some of the catch with us. 

    It was almost always a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and we were touched at times by their actions. On Brooker Island where we had recorded a large sailau canoe and spent time talking at length with elders, the day had finished when, in the late twilight, a small canoe came to the boat. On board was a 21-year-old woman, Patricia, and a young family member in tow. She had brought three eggs and a yam and shyly asked if she could exchange them for a line and some hooks.  We recognised her initiative and were able to give her a reel, line and some hooks, much more than she had hoped for. Early the next morning she was back, with a lovely small handmade basket as a gift to say thanks for helping her family. She earned some more hooks.

    Waluma East village on Fergusson Island was another special occasion of friendship.  Their epoi canoe was special to the village, but to us as well. It was a craft seen by one member of our group at the 2014 Alotau Canoe Festival, and we were keen to meet the owner again. It took a bit of time and searching to find the village, which then presented a challenge to us with a rocky, surf landing.  We got ashore, twice in the end, and were given a wonderful reception. They went to a great effort to help us understand the meaning of the canoe’s artwork and symbols, they demonstrated aspects of how the canoe was handled, and took it out from its shelter and rigged it up.  They took a strong interest in why we were recording the information and understood that this would preserve it and that we would be able to present it back with them in due course as writing and drawings. At the end, a man named John spoke on behalf of the whole village, thanking us for coming, but also recognising that we had made a significant effort to look for them and had come to them from so far away.  This meant we were now part of the canoe’s story, and so too the village’s story and that we were welcome back again at any time. 

    We would love to be able to do this, and hopefully the opportunity will come. But there is another opportunity begging that this highlights - Australia can do more to help its nearest neighbour. The story of what we saw in the islands where there is little infrastructure and support is mirrored elsewhere in PNG. Many have no phone, no internet, no radio. These remote islanders feel abandoned. The simple act of restoring Radio Australia would put Australia back into remote PNG. Followed up by practical help with day-to-day services we take for granted will gain enormous respect and thanks. It will also allow Papua New Guineans to gain confidence and control of their own progress and work towards solving some of their deeper community issues.   


    John Greenshields is a retired Adelaide architect who lived in Papua New Guinea and worked on their Government infrastructure projects for 11 years between 1967 and 1982. He has returned often and recently travelled to PNG to record the art and traditional canoe-making practices of the Milne Bay Province.