The scene is epic, full of omens. A young woman dressed in white poses enigmatically in the foreground of the photo. Behind it is a view of barren mountain slopes and below, a blue puddle at the bottom of a deep mining pit. Above, dark gray clouds hang low. It is an image of darkness and light, of apprehension and timelessness.
The photography is the work of Taloi Havini, an artist from Bougainville, in the far east of Papua New Guinea (PNG), who wants to draw the viewer into the history of her people and the extraordinary events that propelled the remote Pacific Island in the headlines 30 years. since.
In 1989, the Panguna copper mine, one of the largest in the world, located in the central mountains of Bougainville Island, became the center of a David and Goliath struggle.
Outraged by the destruction of their traditional lands and the iniquity associated with the mine, the indigenous landowners rose up against the majority owner, Rio Tinto, and the PNG government, its greatest benefactors. The mining giant was forced to abandon the lucrative business and the long civil war (1989-1998) that followed, while ending in a triumph for the islanders, left deep human scars.
The Blood Generation photographic series (2009), a collaboration between Havini, born eight years before the outbreak of the war, and award-winning Australian photographer, Stuart Miller, are powerful portraits of young people from Bougainville whose lives are deeply affected by the loss, but whose provocative poses also signal survival and resilience.
Almost half of Bougainville’s population is under 24 and many grew up without education and in communities ravaged by conflict and uncertainty.
Havini’s family fled to Australia in 1990 where, as a young girl, her father, Moses, a prominent independence advocate, gave her a tape of a local rock band from Bougainville.
“They were making music under the military blockade and one of the songs was called Blood Generation. I used to listen to him and think about what my younger parents were going through, how they couldn’t go to school but had to live under army control and how there was no contact with the outside world, ”Havini told Al Jazeera. “Nineteen years later, it is this generation whose vote contributed to the overwhelming response to full independence in last year’s referendum.
Bougainville, an autonomous region of about 300,000 people in PNG, has made headlines for the past two years as the final stages of the 2001 peace accord were implemented.
Last November, islanders voted massively for independence in a referendum. Self-determination is an exciting issue, highlighted this year when the region’s general elections culminated in the coming to power of former rebel leader Ishmael Toroama as Bougainville. new president ahead of difficult negotiations on the country’s future relations with PNG.
For the artist, politics is also personal.
“Havini communicates and brings to the discussion table important and meaningful topics that have impacted and continue to impact Bougainville and its people,” said Sana Balai, Curator of Pacific Arts based in Australia.
Havini was born in Arawa, a town less than an hour’s drive from the Panguna mine, although her father’s clan lives on Buka Island north of Bougainville. Her mother, Marilyn, is Australian and Havini went on to study art in Australia and now exhibits around the world.
Earlier this year, her first Australian solo exhibition at the Artspace in Sydney featured the artwork, Reclamation (2020), which covered the gallery floor. On its wavy surface, dramatic lighting cast long shadows on cane sculptures resembling sentinels.
“The main installation was traditional ‘taluhu’ architecture (the local Hako word for shelter and protection). The main concept was to build a ‘bottom-up’ approach from the ground up using natural temporal materials, such as cane and betel palm that we often use to form an arch-shaped support frame, ”he said. Havini explained. “The claim was to honor the result of our struggle for self-determination and to celebrate the historic arrival of the referendum for the independence of Bougainville.”
The book explores the notions of “recuperation” of land and culture, in this context of foreign control, dating from German colonization in the 19th century, the Australian administration at the beginning of the 20th century and the reign of PNG. after 1975. Behind this history of resistance hides a deep link between the Melanesians and their customary land, which, above all, is the source of life, subsistence and the home of their ancestors.
In keeping with his culture, Havini created Reclamation in consultation with his clan.
“With the support of my village, my chiefs, my mother and my aunts, I created a space under my house… where we discussed art, our history and our culture incorporating patterns and clan drawings in the shelter and standing sculptures.
The tension between this worldview and the for-profit corporate mission to extract the region’s rich mineral resources, such as copper and gold, is one aspect of Havini’s multi-channel video installation, called Habitat (2018-2019).
It’s an irresistible work of moving images from Australia’s National Archives, Civil War reporting and Havini’s family archives, presenting local experiences of the controversial past of the Panguna mine.
“Because the Panguna mine threatened the existence of our healthy habitats, rendering large areas uninhabitable due to toxic tailings and polluted freshwater river systems, locals protested further and shut down the mine from functioning after seeing all the wealth going to foreign interests, ”Havini explained. “I was 10 years old at the time, witnessing the tireless work of my activist parents who rallied to the demonstrations for an international intervention for a peace process.
Habitat also resonates with arts curator, Balai, who previously worked as an environmental analyst at Bougainville Copper, the mine’s operating company, and monitored the impact of mine waste.
His father was working with the government at the time, but like many other residents of Bougainville, he feared being dispossessed where customary land is central to traditional Melanesian culture.
“While watching Habitat, the childhood memories of my father’s words came back. When he returned home after seeing women protesting or a woman chained to a machine, he hugged me tight and said through tears, ‘Daughter, I will never leave anyone, especially strangers , you take your land away from you and your sisters, ” she said.
Most Bougainville residents believe the nation is the only way to fully own their islands and their destiny.
However, last year’s referendum was non-binding and the future of the region will be decided following high-level national negotiations, which are expected to start in 2021.
Edward Wolfers, professor emeritus of politics at the Australian University of Wollongong, believes that “the details and costs of Bougainville’s transition are likely to be particularly controversial for committed PNG nationalists, as well as for supporters of a separate independence for Bougainville, and the specialists concerned by the need for training, resources and specific expertise ”.
With little internal income and post-conflict reconstruction underway, any political transition could take years. But President Toroama remains optimistic. In his inaugural speech on September 29, he sought to rally the population of Bougainville.
“Independence has been our dream since the days of our ancestors,” he said. “We fought for this and won the war, but we haven’t won the battle yet!”
Taloi Havini’s next big show is The Soul Expanding Ocean # 1: Taloi Havini, curated by the art and ocean advocacy organization, TBA21-Academy, at Ocean Space in Venice, Italy (March 20 October 17, 2021)