When art meets the environment

The Sepik River in Papua New Guinea is home to the Iatmul people, an indigenous community of over 400,000 people whose cultural identity, economy, and way of life is threatened by impending mining operations. In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man: Contemporary Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea will be the first exhibit in North America to showcase the extraordinary sculptures of the Sepik region.

The exhibit, curated by Carol E. Mayer at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, will also spotlight the looming environmental dangers faced by the community.

“It’s a very isolated community, so they feel voiceless,” says Mayer, an associate member of the department of anthropology, at UBC, who has visited the Sepik region three times over the past 10 years.

“The potential for the recent accidents that happened in Brazil and B.C. to happen there is concerning because the future of their art and their livelihood hangs in the balance.”

An endangered economy and identity

Sculptures from In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man | Photos courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology

Sculptures from In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man | Photos courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology

The sculptures featured in the exhibit foster a great sense of pride and ancestral connection for the Sepik people, says Mayer. They are inspired by daily experiences along the river, ritual initiation ceremonies and mythological stories of the Crocodile Man as the primordial ancestor. In these stories, a woman falls in love with a crocodile man before giving birth to an eagle that can become a man. The crocodile tells her to take a canoe up the river and build a village where she finds his footprint.

“So she goes up the river in the canoe and finds a footprint. She builds the village, and her son becomes the head of that village. Everything is wrapped up in tales of where people originate,” says Mayer.

The sculptures are also a key component of the Sepik people’s small cash economy, but they are dependent on tourists and collectors coming up the river in order to sell their carvings. Hence, if the river were to get contaminated by the mining operations, people would cease to come, and the sculptures would have no way of being sold, thus putting an end to their cash economy.

“They live a subsistent life, so money is not necessary for them to survive, but with no cash economy, they can’t buy salt or flour or clothes for their children, or [have the means] to send their children to school,” Mayer explains. “A polluted river threatens their entire lifestyle. The fish will die, the crocodiles will die.”

More awareness means greater accountability

Sculptures from In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man | Photos courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology

Sculptures from In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man | Photos courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology

The Sepik River is one of the largest unpolluted river systems in the world, but a local mining project, which is expected to be the biggest copper-gold mine in the world, may change that if the company is not held accountable.

“Most people don’t even know that this is happening,” Mayer says. “So my hope is that with this exhibit, people will come and be enthralled by the incredible art, but also feel a bit challenged. They need to be aware of what’s happening around the art.”

To facilitate this learning, the exhibit will feature videos and photographs of the Sepik River to provide context for the 27 wood sculptures, and to highlight the environmental risks posed by the excavations that are expected to be underway as the exhibition opens.

Mayer reached out to the mining company and they responded, saying that they are working together with the villagers and doing their due diligence to create a mine that won’t pollute the river.

“I asked their permission to put their statement from the email into the exhibit,” says Mayer. “In a way, by making that public, they can be held accountable.”

Mayer also added that Global Rivers – a research group based out of Massachusetts that tracks river systems around the world and measures their health over five-year periods – is now also monitoring the Sepik River, so they’ll be alerted to any changes in the river’s composition.

“The reality is that we can’t stop the mining operations,” Mayer explains. “But we can make people aware that it’s happening in this isolated community, and hold the companies accountable so that they don’t think they can get away with it just because the world isn’t watching.”

For more information, please visit www.moa.ubc.ca.

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