Shadow portraits 1994 (detail)
colour photocopies

In many Melanesian societies the traditional cultures are in transition. However, many stories have survived for thousands of years. This can be accredited to the continual practices of oral history (storytelling), ceremonial rituals, song and dance, and production of artefacts. These stories, especially in their ritual re-enactment, reinforce the intricate bonds between the people themselves and nature, upon which their survival depends. Yet such mytho-poetical systems are not completely static; they reflect the limited social change that occurs continually to all societies, no matter how isolated.

For most parts of Papua New Guinea, the encounter with the outside world and its cultural influences has been more gradual than elsewhere. Even today there are isolated communities where contact remains minimal and the way of life has been relatively untouched by the outside world. The Trobriand Islands, off the south-eastern tip of PNG, is one example and provides the material for the Sail the Midnight Sun relief sculptures.

In 2003 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased fourteen relief sculptures made in 1979 for the kesawaga or dance drama Sail the Midnight Sun. These fourteen sculptures were created by the Raun Raun Theatre from a poem written by PNG activist and artist John Kasaipwalova in 1973. The panels, beautifully carved in deep relief and painted with earth pigments, show human figures in traditional and transitional designs. The works dramatises a traditional Trobriand Islands story about a cult hero called Yolina, the Midnight Sun. John Kasaipwalova interprets Yolina’s adventures in contemporary terms with a national hero who emerges called Niugini.

Yolina fails in his quest to find his perfect bride, the Woman of the Moons, as set up by the Oracles, but he meets Imdeduya, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and marries her. A son is born and he is called Yolina, a reincarnation of himself. As time passes, a former lover of Imdeduya creates jealousy and doubts in her mind while Yolina is out fishing. Eventually she is seduced by his talk and Yolina’s marriage to her is effectively ended, with sorcery spells cast by Imdeduya to kill Yolina, the Midnight Sun.

Yolina in retaliation tries to hurt Imdeduya by killing their son and therefore himself, a form of eliminating himself completely from Imdeduya’s life. He casts the body into the sea before leaving Muruwa. Imdeduya’s hatred and sorcery, taking the form of sea witches, causes his shipwreck in a terrible storm. Yolina clings to his oar and holds safe his Bwalai stone, which represents the spirit man guarding and guiding the canoe, until he is about to drown. The stone falls to the bottom of the sea and wakes the sacred swordfish, which comes to Yolina’s rescue. The swordfish carries Yolina, the Midnight Sun, to Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands, where he is eventually united with the Woman of the Moons.

The story is also interpreted as a metaphor for the emerging nation of Papua New Guinea in its evolution from a traditional society to the sort of western society the people must shape from the realities around them. Sail the Midnight Sun is a part of a trilogy — the other two plays are in oral form.

Sana Balai, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).