Letter from Townsville

In the second week of August just under 2000 multilingual Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians from 25 Pacific nations, along with 300 Aboriginal and Islander delegates, converged on Townsville, named after Kanak labour trader Robert Towns. At no cost to the onlooker, the largest cultural celebration ever held here commenced. At the closing ceremony, ten days later, about 5000 were in attendance. This fifth, four yearly peripatetic and international Pacific Festival of Arts included four visual arts and artifacts exhibitions, three days of film and video screenings, a three day cultural forum, a crafts village housing demonstration and sale of pacific visual arts and artifacts, and virtually ten hours per day for ten days of dance, song, chanting, drumming, musicianship, theatre and ceremony, including a sacred Tahitian firewalk in which about 300 audience members participated. Presentations involved twelve separate venues in and around Townsville.

In case events might be mistaken for exotic entertainments commodified for the consumer, there was no charge at any venue. Despite evidence of long standing European missionary and commercial influence, many events openly celebrated traditional tribal and community identity and life style, the value of spontaneous celebration as an essential part of daily life, and the role of art as an expression of communal identity for all, rather than the idiosyncrasy of an elite. Some events confirmed the spiritual and supernatural as a fact of life along with the value of diverse traditional ways of accessing these realms. Many presentations confirmed the efficacy of material simplicity, simple technologies, sophisticated hand skills and informed familiarity with natural materials and phenomena in meeting genuine human needs. Both contemporary and traditional arts were celebrated.

In addition many events positively celebrated physicality and proved the human body, whether near naked or extravagantly adorned, to be a far worthier artistic vehicle than yet another wall.

Performances were conscientiously recorded by official festival audio documenter David Fanshawe, international music ethnologist. Local and visiting photographers and overseas documenters from as far as Belgium, Italy and UCLA attended in their hundreds, comprising a large proportion of the onlookers while national headlines studiously avoided this non-bicentennial event. Sydney artist Peter Tully made a photographic record for the NSW Craft Council, cantering on simple arts technologies and the body as artistic vehicle in Pacific cultures. Two video records have already become available from Townsville's North Queensland Television and from the Aboriginal and Islander Media Association.

Some visitors felt Australia was ill prepared to mount the Festival, with Townsville proving a difficult venue in terms of logistics, atmosphere, and facilitation of spontaneous social activity. The executive committee seemed to undergo an alarmingly high turnover almost throughout its short life, and those of the largely Aboriginal and Islander final team, who worked hard and with good will, are to be congratulated on overcoming various difficulties. Many efforts may continue to go unrecognised.

The next such festival in four years time is to be held at Raratonga in the Cook Islands, where as in the past, festival activities will be conducted from an easier, more consistent and centralised focus than was provided in Townsville.

Such local Community as attended the Townsville events tended to express surprise at the extent and cultural richness of the festival and at its lack of promotion, as well as regret at Australia's cultural isolationism to date, regarding the Pacific quarter of the globe. Some reported residual vague dissatisfactions with the seeming sombreness of our European lifestyle in comparison - a sort of post-festival depression syndrome.

PS Townsville painter/printmaker Ron McBurnie is one of the two winners of the 1988 Free mantle Print Award.

Townsville painter/printmaker Margaret Wilson is one of those selected to exhibit/participate in the Queensland Art Gallery's Jack Manton Award.