The National Gallery of Victoria recently acquired three powerful and disarming photographs from the series Blood Generation, 2009–11, by Bougainville-born artist Taloi Havini and Australian photographer Stuart Miller. This important series is dedicated to the ‘blood generation’ of young men and women born during the bitter and prolonged war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville (1988–98). This war, which was triggered by external interests in mining and sustained by local acts of political self-determination, resulted in 20,000 deaths and forced many Bougainvilleans to desert their villages in fear of their lives. Havini and Miller explore the repercussions that copper mining and horrific armed conflict have on the young people of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. They also address its destruction of land and the natural environment that, for matrilineal societies of Bougainville and Buka, is the foundation of their political and social organisation and their very being.
Sami and the Panguna mine, 2009–10, revisits a moment in history when female landowners in Bougainville protested against the gouging of their land by mining. In a powerful manifestation of opposition, dissenting mothers held their children, squatted and chained themselves to the mine’s earth-moving trucks in protest.
Sami and the Panguna mine is a magical and numinous image, yet its dark and traumatic history, as the heart of the Bougainville war, insinuates its presence through a row of burnt and rusted heavy equipment left behind when the Panguna mine closed in 1990. Sami, a child refugee, escaped with her family to Honiara in the Solomon Islands before obtaining refugee status in the Netherlands. The white cloud rising over the hills suggests that nature is there to welcome and shield Sami as she re-enters contested matrilineal land where the world’s largest open-cut mine of its time once stood. A pool of aquamarine-coloured water at the bottom of the pit, contaminated with the copper solution, is the result of a leaching process still happening today.
Siwai on the airstrip shows a young man from Siwai, a large area of the coast, central plains and hinterland of Bougainville. He is dressed in torn jeans and a hessian bag embellished with an image of a skull, which reflects the style of today’s Bougainville youth. In the background, other Siwai young men sit at the centre of the airstrip, as is customary, except when the landing of a plane forces them to move to the edge.
Gori standing in a Buka passage, 2009–10, shows a young man standing in front of a narrow strait, less than a kilometre wide, which separates the Island of Buka from the northern part of Bougainville. Gori gazes directly into the camera as if to ask what happened, or to say, ‘I know what happened but I don’t understand why’. This is a common feeling among the blood generation, the silent victims of the Bougainville war, who were far too young to comprehend its inexorable repercussions.
Sana Balai, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)