On December 6, a normally quiet time in PNG before Christmas, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that the Speaker of Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc (Finschhafen, Morobe Provnice) planned to remove a lintel of 19 ornately carved faces from iconic facade of the national Parliament House.1 Objections came in from all quarters – from academia, unions, churches – and the Post-Courier, but the speaker’s staff continued to work, erecting scaffolding around a group of carved poles representing the nation’s diverse woodworking traditions in the main entrance hall of the building. Zurenuoc insisted that he would “cleanse” the building all “ungodly images and idols”2, not only these works, but all of the decorations in the building. It was part of his plan to “reform” and “modernise”3 Parliament itself. Critics accused the Speaker of magical thinking about merely artistic and “cultural” objects. They attributed his efforts to millenarianism, animism, religious fervor, and even foreign interference from Israel. Many said his actions would damage national unity because they brought religion into the state in a new and divisive way.
One reason why this issue seemed to catch fire has to do with PNG’s famously byzantine political machinations. Yet, as a bit of summertime political theatre, it also caught the public’s attention both domestically and internationally. In December two separate conferences were held by the National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG)4 and the National Cultural Commission5, and an international network of anthropologists rallied online to support their colleague, Andrew Moutu, the director of NMAG, who has been challenging the action in court. It was a dispute over symbols on several levels: not only whether Christian or indigenous symbols should be used for national institutions, but also whether either of these kinds of images could still express a credible national identity, and one could still gave credence to the secular belief that there are no gods or ghosts in the constitutional machine, that symbols were merely objects. These kinds of disputes have come up several times in the history of PNG’s iconic ‘spirit house’ (haus tambaran).
As PNG prepared for independence from Australia in 1975, the territory’s government held a design competition for a permanent home for parliament. They wanted a grand building in the government district of Waigani that would symbolize the country’s future as a free nation. The design by Cecil Hogan entitled “A Modern Haus Man (Men’s House)” envisaged a complex of three buildings under a sharply steeped roof over the central hall, creating a profile evoking a haus tambaran (spirit house) of an East Sepik province men’s cult. The other buildings referenced places of male leadership found in other regions. Archie Brennan, a lecturer from the national arts school, was selected to manage the process of producing decorative artwork for the complex which would reflect different artistic traditions from around the country. Mimicking the painted bark facades of spirit houses, Brennan designed an intricate, colorful mosaic based on drawings by the renowned artist Mathias Kauage and others for the building’s front facade. It combined cultural motifs, symbols of the nation’s resources and future progress, and excerpts from the preamble to the constitution. Students from the school and carvers produced the lintel of nineteen faces for the front facade. Brennan also oversaw the creation of an assemblage of wooden poles entitled “Bung Wantaim” (Coming Together), placed in the front foyer. After four years construction and 23.4 million kina (approximately US$25 million then), the building opened in 19846.
From the beginning, the design and artwork of the building was controversial. Students from the University of Papua New Guinea protested the opening over the expense. Many other criticised that such a large building and grandiose design was chosen as opposed to a project that could be built in stages. Critics read it as a monument to the country’s new leaders, and suggested that the design really only symbolised the Sepik region of Michael Somare, the first prime minister, and not the country as a whole. Architects also faulted the use of indigenous design and artwork. One of the design competition’s judges, Balwant Saini said that indigenous styles and images were stripped of their original cultural context in order to make a political statement about national unity. The whole thing was a “cultural abortion.”7
In a 2012 letter to the PC lamenting ethnic violence and lawlessness, Riwi Rindi “Let us not think as our so called leaders from the haus tambaran but as real Papua New Guineans. … The regionalistic thoughts are not from our fathers or a Melanesian way of thinking. It is a thought introduced by our so called leaders in the haus tambaran which is now beginning to eat away the fabric of this nation.”8 The author suggests that parliamentarians don’t deserve to be associated with the virtues of traditional leadership, and subtly reminds his readers of the Sepik roots of the supposedly national building.
Another letter-writer in the PC decried the influence of ‘millionaire’ donors on politics, saying those elected are beholden to them “in order to stay on the comfortable chairs of Haus Tambaran.”9 Writing a letter from the “Works Compound” (a Port Moresby housing compound for Department of Works staff), Robert Akunaii wrote a letter to the PC recently to lament the corruption of public spending. He writes: “[At independence] the Haus Tambaran was built with the finest materials and even the size of the building is huge, it is one of the best Parliament House amongst the Commonwealth Countries … [Today] Waigani has become a synonym for graft.”10
Among the many ironies that people play on, one is that parliament supposedly represents a Christian nation, yet its members can be quite wicked. In a 2008 speech in Parliament Francis Awesa MP remarked that “it was ironic that parliamentarians prayed for God’s guidance at the start of every session in a building dubbed Haus Tambaran.”11 In a 2010 opinion article in the PC, Isaac Lupari called for a parliament with a more “Christian environment.” He quipped that “the National Parliament changes people;” members are “converted” to a religion of corruption when they enter the building. Citing the country’s Christian principles in its constitution, he suggested that not only should its national legislature not be housed in a traditionally styled building, but that since the haus tambaran came from the Sepik, it could never be a national symbol anyways.12 The Christian critique of the state often sounds exactly like the traditional critique of the state. As Riwi Rindi says: “They are called leaders when in fact they lack all the leadership traits that makes a person be a leader.”
Some people see a deeper meaning in the building. For instance, Peter Pere, a pastor of the Port Moresby Church of God said that many public sculptures in Port Moresby, including Parliament House, were traditional idols that offended God and brought God’s curse upon the country. This was based on research for a forthcoming book “relating to Haus Tambaran and political leadership of Sir Michael Somare and his reign in his 40 years in political leadership.”13 For the pastor, traditional artwork should never symbolise a modern, Christian nation; in his worldview, traditional forms were by definition pre-Christian, and hence, evil. Awesa, in the speech cited above, also suggested that the traditional styles of sculpture in Parliament invited demons to enter.
10-toea stamp for the opening of Parliament House in 1984. (Credit: Stampmall stampmall.com.au/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=4417)[/caption]
These critics of Parliament don’t just question whether the metaphor of the building’s design and decoration is apt. They impose their own alternative meanings on traditional forms, connecting traditional ancestor and spirit worship associated specifically with men’s cults and men’s initiation rituals in many parts of the country, including the Sepik region, and pagan worship of Satan. Because the nation-state of PNG continues to celebrate non-Christian institutions, even in a token way, leaders in effect reject the salvation offered by Christianity, and the modernity and membership in the global Christian community this brings. For the independence generation, tradition was a key symbol of the new nation because it distinguished the country from Australian society and the colonial past. They did not, of course, have any desire to perpetuate traditional forms that prevented economic growth. In fact, many early politicians were hard anti-traditionalists. Yet then everyone mostly seemed to agree that traditional art, stripped of its original meaning, was still appropriate as a symbol for a uniquely Melanesian nation. For revivalist Christians like Peter Pere, though, colonialism and independence are in fact the same step in a totally different story, the advent of Christianity in PNG and the beginning of a totally new kind of society.
Cleansing House or Cleaning House?
Somare was the country’s first prime minister, and also most frequent, leading four governments between 1975 and 2011. Being the so-called father of the nation has been double edged. He has been a fixture of politics, but his longevity has made the public anticipate the rise of the next generation of politicians all the more eagerly. In 2011, after months absent from the capital for medical treatment in Singapore, a group of parliamentarians led by Peter O’Neill (Ialibu-Pangia, Southern Highlands Province) changed the government, yet under a questionable application of procedure. Both sides obtained court decisions and orders bolstering their claims to a parliamentary majority. For months, the national media, unable to decide who was legitimate, referred to two governments, two governors-general, two police commissioners, and so on. Finally, a compromise was reached that placed O’Neill’s faction in power just in time for the 2012 general election. Claiming the mantle of the next generation, O’Neill and his supporters cemented their victory in the election. Since returning to office, O’Neill has formed quite possibly the broadest coalition in history – of parliaments, everywhere. By the end of 2013, the official opposition consisted of 6 out of 111 members and the government has 105 (although press reports suggest that groups within the government can still block legislation).
At the height of the crisis, the government formed by O’Neill met in Parliament. The session was boycotted by the Somare government. Theo Zurenuoc, one of O’Neill’s supporters, rose to speak on the dark days facing the republic. Poreni Umau, a reporter for the PC was in the gallery that day and wrote the following:
“I believe that this house (parliament) is cursed,” Mr Zurenuoc said. > > He went on to relate to parliament where on one Sunday, he went to pray in > parliament and saw 19 designs on the wall of the building. > > He said that he was taken aback by these designs saying that they represented > the 19 provinces and these designs may be evil spirits that have brought curse > to the parliament house. > > He said that he went ahead and began praying against the evil spirits, > rebuking them out of the house. > > […] > > He also spoke out against Sir Michael . . ., alleging that the Grand Chief > [as Somare is also widely known] and his followers were agents and > facilitators of evil. “I must say it here. I do not fear anyone. They are > agents and facilitators of evil,” he said.14
Zurenuoc’s prophecy recalls a lot of religious rhetoric one finds in PNG, but it also brings together all of the common critiques of the building. Amidst the monuments selected by Somare to represent the nation, Zurenuoc turns the building from a spirit house into his own private chapel. Where many see mere symbols of the national community, he wills himself to see more than meets the eye, the hidden powers behind the public image. What’s needed, he suggests, is not simply new people in power, but a new system and a new spirit – led by Christianity. After O’Neill and his group were returned to office, Zurenuoc was elected as Speaker of the ninth Parliament of PNG. From early days, he declared his intention to “restore, reform and modernise” the parliament, as he said in a speech at the Centre for Democratic Institutions at Australian National University during a workshop on parliamentary management.15 In that speech, he clearly distinguished himself from the independence generation of Somare. That generation’s approach to policymaking was derived directly from a traditional cultural system, and clashed with the principles of democracy. The traditional ethos had led to official corruption and ethnic favoritism, and his generation must break with this a build a rationally managed parliament based on formal procedures. Rather than pork-barrelling, every member should serve the public interest alone.16
After his first year in the Speaker’s office, Zurenuoc took an opportunity for an act of symbolic nation-making of his own by dismantling artwork that, for him and many others in government, represented the bad old days in more than one way.
Church and State
The response to Zurenuoc’s action was swift. The director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, anthropologist Andrew Moutu said that Zurenuoc’s actions a “perverse political form of millenarianism” and potentially illegal because the artwork was national cultural property.2 The Catholic archbishop of Port Moresby, John Ribat, called it a “disgrace.” He said that the Zurenuoc should have properly sought the input of “mainline churches, anthropologists, historians and educationists before going ahead with his action, as they are ones who can give a balanced opinion on the importance of our cultures and traditions”.17 The statement, like many, implied that Zurenuoc’s personal beliefs were fundamentalist. The reaction, especially internationally, seemed to play on primitive imagery twice over.18 Zurenuoc not only believed in the traditional spirits of indigenous beliefs, but also that they were demons from hell, too. PC editorials compared Zurenuoc to the Taliban, and his actions harmful to democracy.1920 In other words, when they called on the prime minister to intervene, implicitly, it was to rein in a zealot acting illegally. While the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Council of Churches, claiming to represent mainstream belief, condemned Zurenuoc2122, several pastors from Pentecostal churches spoke out in favour, one calling the removal “the work of God.”2324
“Please Stop!” The front page of the PNG Post Courier on December 13, 2013.
The situation became quite tense, it appears. On December 11, O’Neill said in an interview with the PC that work has stopped, then it commenced again.25 The speaker’s office issued no statement, while the PC published a front page story on the issue every single day for two weeks.26 MPs current and former made their stances known. Many prominent members gave support to Zurenuoc, saying he had the authority to act and endorsing the religious meaning as well. Others, including former Speakers and current members, opposed him. The PC ran a picture of Somare on the front page with the headline “‘Please Stop!’: Sir Michael Appeals for End to Desecration.”27 The PC editors accused the speaker’s staff of intimidating reporters on the parliament grounds.28
Finally, on the 18th, Zurenuoc took out a eight page advertisement in the National, a competing newspaper. He toned down his spiritual interpretation of the artwork, saying:
While the carvings are harmless and lifeless wood, they symbolically represent > ancestral gods and spirits of idolatry, immorality and witchcraft. I am not > making this up. I am paraphrasing what the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare said > on the eve of Independence. (In the book Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes: The > Masterpieces Exhibition of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art > Gallery, edited by Barry Craig, published in 2010.)3
He wanted to “modernise” Parliament by installing works that would symbolise what he said were the true sources of national unity, the constitution, the Bible and (oddly) Michael Somare. He announced a plan to erect a National Unity Pole which would combine these and the word ‘unity’ in the 800 indigenous languages of the country. His plan was still steeped in religious language, but carefully avoided anything that smacked of animism, instead attributing that view to Somare and anthropologist Barry Craig.29
On December 27, O’Neill called for a debate in parliament over the fate of the artwork.30 Meanwhile, the issue was debated all over Port Moresby. NMAG held a conference on the topic with several academic and religious speakers.4 Another conference was sponsored by the National Cultural Commission.5
If one looks only at the positions taken by politicians and editorialists, the debate revolved around proving that one’s position was the most consistent with Enlightenment rationality. On Twitter, Deni ToKunai (@Tavurur) tweeted:
My people have a custom of chasing evil spirits away every NY. We bang > saucepans. The Speaker should invest in crockery. Seems to work > #PNG31
For his part, when he finally did speak up, Zurenuoc took the emphasis away from what he wanted to remove, and talked up his own vision. His National Unity Pole would consist mainly of words, of God and the law, not to mention a single abstract noun in 800 different languages. In other words, it would be an expression of pure rationality, ornamented only by a single eternal flame. It seemed calculated to present him as moderniser, working according to his stated plans for parliament, instead of a renegade. Readers of the PC, however, expressed a much broader range of views. While opinion was split, there was much more openness to change.
Between December 6 and January 15, the PC published 21 letters and opinion pieces on the issue. A quick read shows a nearly even split in opinion among the 20 authors. Nine supported Zurenuoc, nine opposed him, and two others expressed a neutral view. The trustees of NMAG32 and a linguistics professor at Divine Word University33 both strongly opposed the speaker’s actions as destruction of cultural heritage. Joseph Walters, the pastor of a popular Pentecostal church, endorsed Zurenuoc and called on churches to support him.34 One tour operator said that cultural heritage was good for the tourism business.35 The other writers, though, actually did want to discuss whether and in what respect PNG was Christian, which traditions still mattered and what would really represent them as a nation. They engaged directly with the question of whether or not the carvings were good, evil or maybe something else. The realm of public discourse was a lot wider.
One strand uniting them is a Christian critique of Zurenuoc’s focus on objects. These authors more or less agreed that PNG was a Christian country, for some even a country founded on a covenant with God, as Zurenuoc claimed. But they said that true reform would come from conversion of parliament’s members. In a sense, these writers make the same kind of critique that PNG people have always had of their government. The dismantling of the decorations was just as empty a gesture as putting them up.363738
Related to this was a position articulated by a few against the speaker. As Nema Yalo writes, “It is contrary to … Christian faith to despise other religions and superimpose Christianity.”393640 The supporters of Zurenuoc were not ready to believe that the state should be neutral on religious questions. In the words of one writer, calling for tolerance is an “atheist’s” view.41 If the state paid respect to culture, or other religions, it would be breaking the first commandment.42
Some people wanted the objects removed because they were part of the past, not because they were evil. Two letter writers recommended that they should be removed, but donated to NMAG. They represented the traditional cultures of PNG, and should be respected as such, just not in Parliament.4344 One author compared the faces and poles to the ritual objects of the Old Testament Canaanites.44 Another author, tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that women had polluted the national haus man. Typically women are forbidden from entering men’s houses, and men’s affairs are officially secret to women. By building a men’s cult building as its national legislature, PNG chose to follow the rules that come with this. Yet this society has always embraced gender equality too. “Don’t you agree?”, the author winks, “[I]f we follow customs and traditions we have ourselves to blame for the traditional misdemeanour and a breach of the cardinal rule – women are out of bounds from the Haus Tambaran.” IF PNG really wants to live up to its own ideals, it needs a change. “I propose we build a new Parliament House with a new design and get rid of the Haus Tambaran full of evil spirits.”45
Blessing or Curse
With Parliament away, the criticism of Zurenuoc’s actions in last two months has focused on its religious underpinnings and its implications for a secular, liberal democracy in PNG. As Parliament reconvenes in February, it is possible that another narrative will come out as members of parliament take a stand. Zurenuoc’s speeches during the recess indicate that his stance is good populism as well as moral politics.46
When one looks more closely at people’s reactions, it becomes clear that one can’t explain the scandal purely as a war of ideologies or mere manoeuvring. Zurenuoc has reopened an even bigger question in the minds of many grassroots people. Is it possible at all for there to be a symbol of the national community? For Zurenuoc, the answer seems clearly to be yes. Christianity can transcend all of the different communities of the country more than any traditional expression. While he has a lot of support, people’s views are much more nuanced in their answers.
Zurenuoc’s critics want people to come together as fellow citizens with rights to their beliefs and respect for each other. It’s hard to argue with this liberal vision, especially given that any alternative is bound to exclude someone. So why are people debating the carvings? The real conflict at the heart of this issue is not between religious unity and secular tolerance. There is a deeper difference over what you can and can’t debate in the modern public sphere. Let’s for the moment assume that Zurenuoc was within his authority to hack off a piece of the Parliament facade – and that still remains to be seen as many different laws apply. If he could though, many people wanted to say he shouldn’t simply because basing policy on the supernatural is out of bounds. The carvings could not be evil, because they were symbols and nothing more. Even Zurenuoc himself ultimately conceded that the works were “lifeless wood.” You can believe whatever you want about them, but that’s all it is, a personal belief.
And yet, these tenets of the liberal modern creed sound pretty hollow to many in PNG, and have for some time. The possibility that there were unseen forces has been, though, if not credible, good to think and good to debate. It’s a debate that is not, at least in a strict sense, rational. It still resonates in part because it draws upon the long tradition of accusing politicians of hypocrisy. It starts as a joke, and becomes a speculation. While officials and experts confidently assert claims to truth, letter writers, tentatively and pragmatically, probe, question and suggest. If it is possible that there are hidden forces in state pageantry, people can then ask an unaskable question. Just why is this constitutional order the right one? The parliament house tangibly embodies the PNG polity more tangibly than the constitution and other national symbols. While the objects that adorn it may or may not have powers of their own, the possibility that someone could take down one embodiment of the collective self and put in place another seems to be what critics fear and others find fascinating. In PNG, “Christian country” and “Melanesian way” are more often than not empty slogans. Politicians flog them to stir up sentiment. Why do people keep talking about them in earnest? Because they offer a chance to rethink things that are often too readily left unquestioned.