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Book Review: Piksa Niugini


Book Review Piksa Niugini By Stephen Dupont Reviewed by Karen Jenkins As befits a recipient of the Robert Gardner Fellowship in photography from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Stephen Dupont undertook a grand adventure in the making of his latest publication, Piksa Niugini. This two volume set chronicles his 2011 travels in Papua New Guinea, from the rough streets of the capital Port Moresby to remote villages throughout the Highlands.

Piksa Niugini: Portraits and Diaries. By Stephen Dupont.
 Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013.
 
Piksa Niugini
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

$60.00
Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013. 236 pp., 120 color and 80 duotone illustrations, 8x10".


As befits a recipient of the Robert Gardner Fellowship in photography from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Stephen Dupont undertook a grand adventure in the making of his latest publication, Piksa Niugini. This two volume set chronicles his 2011 travels in Papua New Guinea, from the rough streets of the capital Port Moresby to remote villages throughout the Highlands. He was particularly interested in the detribalization running parallel to the encroachment of western culture and painfully entrenched poverty and violence. Tribal festivals called sings-sings are an overt demonstration of how tradition has met with change, and in “Portraits,” Dupont presents the outward looking face of Papua New Guinea in their elaborately costumed performers. This gallery also depicts those literally and figuratively in the background — festival onlookers as well as those going about their decidedly un-celebratory, everyday lives. There’s a certain structure and containment in “Portraits” that’s tossed off in “Diaries,” a dense collection of rawer photographs and marked up contact sheets, interspersed with pages of Dupont’s diary, where he’s collected hand-written entries, drawings, newspaper clippings and other ephemera. The type of portraiture comprising the first volume recurs marginally in the second, a collection marked by a telling dichotomy of explicit headlines (Possessed man eats baby) and more oblique revelations to be dug out of Dupont’s scrawling penmanship and small contact sheet frames.

Piksa Niugini: Portraits and Diaries. By Stephen Dupont. Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013.
Piksa Niugini: Portraits and Diaries. By Stephen Dupont. Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013.

Dupont is cognizant of the photographer-explorer tradition of Frank Hurley, Michael Leahy and others who have traveled Papua New Guinea long before him. While he clearly thrives on the adventure of it all, he is also careful to distance his work from that loaded lineage of the first world cameraman documenting “primitive” cultures. So at first blush, his choice to position his portrait subjects against a white or black sheet seems to skirt too close to the pitfalls of de-contextualization and a passive subservience. Yet in spite of, or perhaps due to Dupont’s use of this device, the portraits feel inclusive and participatory. There’s a sense that someone holding up the sheet in one image is just as likely to stand before it in the next, and Dupont often photographs those who appear just beyond the backdrop, as they edge in or lean out. There’s a wonderful range of affectation in those outside of this loosely regarded frame — the curious, the proud, the bored, and the at-arms-length unaware. They bring the communal to what are simultaneously powerfully individualized portraits, demonstrating an increasingly self-aware, less insular culture. This is born out in dress as much as in demeanor — traditions echo, clash and overlap in the masks and make-up, clothing and costumes of sing-sing performers and men and women in the street.

Piksa Niugini: Portraits and Diaries. By Stephen Dupont. Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013.
Piksa Niugini: Portraits and Diaries. By Stephen Dupont. Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press, 2013.

If there’s a chance that “Portraits” presents a view too measured or controlled to fully characterize contemporary Papua New Guinea, then “Diaries” offers a looser, more sweeping take. Here Dupont uses a range of narrative vehicles to weave through the subtly poignant and graphically shocking. Dupont calls Papua New Guinea “the land of the unexpected” and uses his analogy of travel through negotiated car trips and meet ups, to describe the real dangers of everyday life, along with unexpected gifts of happenstance. Throughout, Papua New Guinea’s symbols are complex and sometimes contradictory. The mobile phone is both weapon in a violent domestic assault and the commodity driving local advertisements and national sponsorships. Those “Raskols” re-photographed here are sometimes still gangster, and sometimes protection from the same. There’s an inherent duality in the sing-sings as well — this tradition with its spectacularly adorned performers is both authentic culture and only part of the picture. Dupont represents this tradition as comingled with the contemporary everyday, in a depiction that acknowledges a degree of out of time artifice without condemning it as artifact. Piksa Niugini is firmly rooted in Papua New Guinea’s fragile present, but with a tempered optimism that feels right.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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