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Elise Huffer at the Festival of Pacific Arts

The 11th Festival of Pacific Arts just held in Solomon Islands began and ended with a bang – literally: it all started at 5am on the morning of July 2nd with fireworks held over the Iron Bottom Sound, announcing the arrival of traditional canoes, and ended with fire in the sky over Lawson Tama on Friday the 13th of July, following a performance of traditional dancing from all the provinces of Solomon Islands. The large local public’s appreciation, heard through shouts of: Go Solo, go Solo, sums up the atmosphere of the closing of this unique and extraordinary event that takes place every four years in a different Pacific Island country.

It may seem odd that fireworks have become part of what has been known as the premiere Pacific showcasing of traditional cultures, but what a thrill it was for the huge crowds waiting in Honiara every evening at 9pm at the Festival village following the end of the performances, for the grand daily lights show.  It was the first time ever that Honiara experienced fireworks and so for many Solomon Islanders also. For the rest of us it was one of the most beautiful and joyful settings for fireworks we have ever witnessed. The Festival village, entirely constructed with traditional skills and materials by teams of builders from throughout the country and the most spectacular of any in the 40 years of the Festival’s existence, made for a wondrous and festive background.

But more importantly, the mix of fireworks, traditional canoes, leaf houses, ancestral dances, contemporary music and shouts of Go Solo, Go Solo speak of a Solomon Islands’ culture that is well and truly alive, vibrant, celebratory, young, old and contemporary and not afraid of the future. The other truly inspiring aspect of the Festival was its ability to bring together the diversity of Solomon Islands in a moment of proud unity. Also for many of us working on the protection of traditional knowledge, the re-appropriation of Deep Forests’ ‘Sweet Lullaby’ hit in the opening ceremony - a traditional lullaby from North Malaita from which Deep Forest made a hefty profit but the traditional owners of the song saw no returns- was a sweet snub.

The lead up to the 11th Festival was a long and hard four years of preparation following the 10th edition held in Amerika Samoa. Many in the region and beyond expressed doubts over Solomon Islands’ capacity and determination to host but those of us working closely with the Festival Organising team always had confidence that there would be no turning back. For those of you reading this from beyond the region, Solomon Islands had a period of severe strife which turned into what became known as ethnic fighting in the early 2000s and has had a Regional Assistance Mission (a regional peace-keeping force) in place for the past 9 years.

There is much to say about the Festival: it brings together delegations from over 20 Pacific countries, is entirely open and free to the public and is an invigorating mix of art and cultural forms, some traditional, others contemporary, some esoteric, others humorous, and ranging from music to fashion to film to culinary to medicinal. It involves children as well as elders, and provides a platform for meetings between artists, heritage workers as well as heads and Ministers of Culture.

It is also a mammoth task for the host country. Many Pacific Islands do not have extensive arts or culture infrastructure. Solomon Islands had to build not only the whole Festival village but also a new Art Gallery and an indoor auditorium (to host the film festival and theatre arts). Because it is a free access festival it is difficult for the host country to get immediate returns other than in tourist arrivals. The investment is considerable but the results are long lasting culturally and socially.

So how does the host country get chosen? It is through a process of rotation between the three ‘sub-regions’ of the Pacific: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia (names that are ‘colonial’ in origin but have stuck), with a decision based on (so far) a fairly informal bid made to the Council of Pacific Arts and Culture which meets every two years and brings together the heads of culture of the whole region, from Rapa Nui in the East, Hawai’i in the North all the way to Australia and Aotearoa. My organization, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, is the custodian of the Festival. SPC members mooted the idea of a Festival in the late 1960s (the early discussions even mentioned ballet and opera) and it became reality in 1972, with the first edition held in Suva, Fiji.

The Festival has a proud record: it has been held every four years with only one exception when it had to be moved from New Caledonia in 1984 to Tahiti in 1985 due to political unrest associated with the Kanak independence struggle.  Most countries of the region attend regularly, and each host country sets its own theme.

The next edition will be held in Guam in four years’ time. So for those of you who have never attended a Festival of Pacific Arts: ‘Hafa Aida’ and see you in 2016! And for those of you who want to know more about the 11th edition, you can also ask Kathy Keele, one of our IFACCA Board members who attended with the Australian delegation!

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Show latest news, more from August 2012.

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