Parleying with Paint

by Dr. Laurence Goldman

Inaga dumbi yalu bi te wandarirunaga halepangealedago mbira agi lolebere?
Your forehead is shining like the pearl-shell necklaces of the ‘folk-story girls’,
so what have you got to say?
[Addressed to someone who approaches with a beaming smile as if they are about to convey good news]


This saying from the rich ethnographic vein of Huli colloquialism reminds us that much of our everyday behaviour takes place against a backdrop of narratively defined representations. The self presents here as a ‘decorated being’, the meanings of which are in part parasitic on mythically inscribed experiences. Simply expressed, the speaker here imparts cultural knowledge that the contours of one’s adorned existence are often ‘storied’.

But there is more than mere analogy and allusion to the way in which such oral genres can scaffold the meaning of individualised decorative performances. Developments in genre theory (Bakhtin 1986; Miller et al 2000; Goldman 1998) have sensitised us to the ways in which social actors embed genres in each other – intertextuality – use genres to envision specific realities, and reconstruct personal accounts through interanimation (activation and interweaving of genre based behaviour). These findings have a particular resonance for understanding the tension between the oral narrative of bi te (story) in Huli and folk readings of decorated being in this culture. Decoration is here very much a whole-body renarrativisation of one’s social activity; that is, in the flow of genre upon genre each performer’s enactment invariably refracts the fund of semiotic resources found in bi te. Storied fragments and values about decorated people become both animated and appropriated within the context of often non-oral dance performances.

Anthropologists have of course long argued that the decorated beings that inhabit any fantasy economy crystallize that culture’s imaginative dreams and aspirations. When actors create similar self-images they do so in a manner that manufactures a unique slippage between real and irreal worlds; that is, between an actors’ perceptions of what-they-now-are and what-they-might/would like to-become as incarnations of high aesthetic and/or moral achievement. The decorated being attempts a “dissimilar similarity” (Rapp 1984:143) in which the representation is partly fictional, and partly anchored to the context of some social performance. What a Huli encounters in the engagement with decoration or decorated beings is a modality of experience that, whatever else it may signify, always attests to the permanence of illusion in life. The decorated person is thus always a storied incarnation necessarily invoked in the sense-making activities of both actor and audience.

This is not to suggest that the backcloth of folklore exhausts the realities envisioned by decorated performers. Like many of the Highland cultures of Papua New Guinea, the Huli are in transition to modernity and many of the traditional contexts and rationales for decoration have undergone radical transformation. Most often the contemporary decorated/dancing being has drifted free of its traditional social and ritual moorings to now embody a mélange of images defined by the postcolonial predicament. In this paper I want to explore the above themes by way of posing the following question: in Huli, what role does this performing of a decorated being play in the general being of ‘decoration/adornment’ itself? Somewhere in the vineyard of the semiotic pre-eminence of paint, 1 as displayed in the commerce, politics and poetics of Huli identity, I believe answers can be found.

This project of understanding commences then with the premise that the adorned being is encumbered by, inflected with, and often shaped afresh from folklore resources. In Huli these genred representations define the decorated in contrast to, and often as a mutation of, the ‘undecorated’. Both of these images embed attributes concerning physical and spiritual well-being. What is thereby elucidated by way of scanning the narrative ethnography is a shared knowledge structure about adornment – a script theory of the decorated which implies the following sense-making injunction: ‘I am decorated and everything you know about the narrative construction of decorated being applies to your judgement of me’. What is hereby defined is a cultural baseline of intersubjectivity about decoration, about paint. My initial task is thus to unpack this baseline of intersubjectivity.

My second task is to progress the argument by examining how the forces of modernity have accentuated essentialist images of ethnicity now portrayed in performances of decorated being known as Máli. It appears that a process of natural selection has occurred in Huli to leave only this surviving dance genre from the gamut of pre-colonial dance types (see Table 2). The question is thereby begged as to why this has occurred, and whether Huli have thereby clad their traditionalist centre with a tourism-inspired veneer. Are the masons of Máli no longer adhering to authentic architectural blueprints? Rather, as I shall suggest below, the Máli dance of the decorated repositions the customary dialogue about indigeneity to more directly incorporate present agendas about land rights, tribal status and regional power. The individualised performer in Máli has renarrativised the performance to promote an ethnic iconicity. The whole endeavour becomes a new form of myth-making wherein decorated beings are actors in, as well as authors of, their own real-world documentaries. The Máli is thus a good example of interanimation, the embedding of traditional concepts in contemporary ethnic agendas.

For some readers, this discussion will no doubt appear squarely located at the intersection of the literature on tradition, history and identity (Thomas 1992, Jolly 1992,Linnekin & Poyer 1990, White & Lindstrom 1993), and the now voluminous discourse on embodiment and skin (Gell 1993, O’Hanlon 1989). The approach developed here is I would argue more oblique. I prefer to view the metaphysics of adornment as part of a larger ethnographic project about illusion, the real and the irreal. For this reason, I draw on genre theory to suggest the decorated being is a mimetician of as-if vignettes – “fictional spaces are created into which audiences are invited by means of implicit solicitations –‘let’s say x is the case…let’s pretend…let’s treat as if..’contained in the artistic product’ 2 (Goldman 1988:27). The decorated being reproduces a sense of passing into another body, of corporealisation, of ‘taking the role of the other’. They have a story-like reality infused with the seepage of meaning from an imaginal economy itself often read as history. Analysis is thus very much about uncovering the genetic linkages forged between genre inflected representations of decorated being. The actor’s interanimations segue the roles of redactor, historian, as well as advocate of regional agendas. Irrespective of the political messages about alterity and identity encoded in Máli dance, it is au fond an invitation to engage in and project hypothesised worlds – mythically defined states of person-hood and culturally etched aspirations.

(An extract from Decorated Being – Parleying with Paint by Laurence R. Goldman. Anthropology. University of Queensland. pp. 1-2. Used with permission of Dr. Goldman.)

  1. In earlier work I talked of the significant continuities in the way Huli operate with pigs, paint and parlance as “modal forms of presentation of self” (Goldman 1983:272). []
  2. See Magowan (2000) for a discussion of the poetic politics of dance and Aboriginality. []