Words by Moale James Photography by Kat & Pat Marrow
“How does it feel knowing that there are hundreds of eyes searching your body for an answer or explanation?”
Is similar to asking, “How does it feel to be told who you are and what you should do?”
How does it feel?
I often feel people need me to explain myself – why are you wearing that? What’s with your name? Why is your skin that colour? Why are you acting that way? How is she your grandmother? But most of the time, people don’t even ask. They make judgments on first contact. They call us ‘savages’ for wearing only grass skirts, ‘abusers’ for marking young girls with the beautiful patterns of their ancestors, and ‘immodest’ because our clothing is not solely material or cloth, but also the markings on our skin.
Performing at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art was not only a privilege and an honour, but also an opportunity to recognise the labels of caution and danger that are plastered on our Papuan culture – our ‘savage’, ‘abusing’ and ‘immodest’ culture.
When I told people I was performing at the art gallery, they shared my excitement with innocent smiles. But when I explained that I would be wearing our traditional clothing – meaning, exposing my body with traditional tattoos – their excitement broke with questions and ‘jokes’ like, “Are you getting paid?”, “Is this the first stage into becoming a prostitute?”, and “Can I charge for a lap dance too?”. To say I was offended and completely humiliated wouldn’t suffice.
However, I ignored these comments because I came to realise that the entire performance was meant to demolish these stereotypes. Yes, according to Western Colonial society our backs and our chests were exposed. But within our Papuan culture this was not considered ‘exposure’. Colonisation and missionary ignorance has since shackled traditional concepts of beauty and labelled our marked and bare skin as being indecent. Where once tattoos covered our bodies, now shame requires us to be clothed. What may seem immodest in our Australian culture was once considered beautiful in Papua New Guinean culture – wearing a grass skirt, bilas (dress) and proudly displaying our reva reva (tattoo).
I was frustrated by people’s inability to understand this. But how could they understand? This is outside of their experience. They are often unwilling to take the time to wait, listen and learn why our definition of ‘beauty’ and ‘modesty’ are different. Not wrong but different.
The performance was meant to make a statement and based on the reaction from the crowd I believe it did. As I wore my traditional bilas, my grass skirt, my reva reva and walked through the gallery I felt people’s eyes following me. It felt like some of those eyes contained judgment … “What is she doing?”, “Does she have a shirt on?”, “What’s that on her body?”. I led the crowd to the main foyer, where I stood firm. Blank faced. Proud. There was no doubt, I was proud.
The women behind me sung songs of lament, mourning the presence of judgment on our culture. The atmosphere grew quiet and tense, people stopped their conversations to stare at the young white girl in traditional clothes, ‘exposing herself’.
With no words exchanged the caution tape was wrapped around my body, representing the plastering of stereotypes upon Papuan culture. On the Papuan Woman’s Tattooed Body. As the caution tape came closer to my neck, then to my mouth, tears rolled from the eyes of not only the women behind me, but also those in the crowd. The impact was real and hard-hitting.
I felt that people had understood our unspoken act. I hoped people could understand the hurt created when we are plastered with stereotypes and judgments, and told what we will or won’t be allowed to wear. This prejudice has damaged tradition. Women no longer feel comfortable wearing tattoos and baring their skin, and have been made to feel ‘indecent’. Some Papua New Guineans are searching for identities in cultures and traditions that are not their own; they are influenced by the missionaries, who think they are doing right, but we are suffering from the consequences of their actions. The present generation are so obsessed with becoming modern and technological, while their ancestral knowledge dies with each elder. How will we know who we were and where we came from, and what our stories are?
It was a significant moment, not only for the statement we were making, but also, as a light-skinned woman, to be acknowledged as a Papua New Guinean. No one was able to tell me I wasn’t a Papuan, and this made me feel strong.
This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. To be a part of it was an honour. To make the statement and make people understand was not only a privilege, but more importantly a duty. We had to perform this way to make a statement, whether people felt uncomfortable or not didn’t matter.
Too often we are the ones who are made to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people need to step into someone else’s shoes or in our case … into our bare footprints. Take a moment to understand: when we dress and act this way we do it standing firm and proud. There is no place for judgments.
Moale Jones is a family orientated, Christian, headstrong, young and confident. “I’m not afraid to speak out against injustice, and will fight for the minority to achieve their best. I’m a mixed-race, Papua New Guinean (Motuan) Australian young woman – AKA a zebra, and proud!”