Socially engaged artists Grace Ndiritu and Nicki Wynnychuk caught up to discuss Haus Tumbuna, a communal and sustainable surf board making project in Ulingan Bay, Papua New Guinea. The project is defined by a cyclical economic structure, which is horizontally and democratically run in the community. With a new film about the project being developed, Ndiritu and Wynnychuk discuss the lines between community work and art, alongside the complex social, economic and cultural politics of Haus Tumbuna.
Grace Ndiritu: Hi Nicki, nice to speak to you today. To start, could you please tell us something about your background as an artist, where did you grow up and what did you study?
Nicki Wynnychuk: I grew up in New Zealand. I first studied printmaking in Christchurch. Following that I did post-grad study in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). During my postgrad I was first supervised by Geoff Lowe then later in an unusual sandwich between Lou Hubbard and Bernhard Sachs, for me in the end it worked very well.
GN: Did you start showing straight away, or did you do any residencies abroad or did that happen later?
NW: I consciously didn't exhibit during my postgrad studies and then I had a bunch of shows straight after that period and from there it was pretty thick and fast for a while. I did a residency at Gertrude Contemporary for two years in Melbourne and a three-month residency in Dublin. While in Europe I did a research trip that was supported by the Ian Potter Foundation. Following that I ended up doing this project, Haus Tumbuna, in Papua New Guinea for what is now a decade.
GN: So, when and how did the Haus Tumbuna begin?
NW: I was living in Papua New Guinea (PNG) because my partner at the time was a medical researcher doing a project and I was there as her dependent. I wanted to go surfing, so I contacted the locals. I have worked a lot in the surf industry and managed surf camps in the past, and they needed someone. I was very happy to participate, and things grew from there. With the success of that community development project (the surf camp), we were able to redirect what we earned back into the community. One of the projects that we used the money for was Haus Tumbuna.
‘Haus Tumbuna’ in Papua New Guinea refers to a spirit house, heritage house or ancestor house. The project is set in a factory where we build surfboards, and we wanted a title that positioned this project appropriately, because in PNG building surfboards is a traditional and spiritual process.
The project is run in Madang province, literally on the edge of Ulingan Bay. The communities that we work with are along 80 kilometers of coastline, which includes a range of different villages, hamlets and language groups. It’s very isolated, three hours down a bumpy road from a small place and it's the only road. There's no electricity, there's no sewage, there's very little western-style infrastructure. It's village life, so you know, you go into the bush and build your house.
GN: How do you see Haus Tumbuna as an artwork and not a community project? Or is it both?
NW: I see it as both. The project emerged out of a community need that I witnessed. We had locals who wanted to surf, and they would often sit under a tree and wait for someone to give them a fiberglass board that is very fragile and gets damaged easily. Fiberglass boards are either hard to repair or they wouldn’t get repaired. But with our project, the boards are made from locally sourced timber and we also have our own nursery where we plant trees. We have also developed a sawmill, and we use timber that's not used in other aspects of regular life to build our surfboards.
We give them away to the kids who are pumped on surfing. So, it basically started out as a need, given there are heaps of locals who wanted to surf and there weren't enough surfboards to go around. And building them the way we do was the most traditional and community-oriented way of doing it.
Thinking about Haus Tumbuna as an artistic project, I am an artist who has viewed lots of other social practice work, I was inspired by how a social practice structure could be applied to Haus Tumbuna. I researched Fritz Haeg and was particularly interested in his Edible Estates project. Edible Estates is a revival of the victory garden movement, where Haeg transformed suburban yards into working vegetable gardens. I have also been interested in Theaster Gates work after seeing 12 Ballads for Huguenot House (2012) developed for dOCUMENTA (13). Gates’s project included imagining the restoration of a dilapidated hotel with materials from an abandoned building and hosted public programs with Black Monks of Mississippi. The building Gates worked in also housed all of the labourers and workers involved in the project for its duration. These complex social projects that invest in DIY, working together, creating circular systems with a drive to imagine new models of production and sustainability were, to me, a great way that art can be a designed space to enact positive social change.
I thought about some of these social practice approaches when we developed Haus Tumbuna as we communally developed circular systems that are dedicated to culture and ways to sustain it. It’s not about industry or commerce. Purpose, inclusivity and cultural value are the social aspects of the project. For me this thinking about artistic practice as a communal and socially driven process feels like the best way I can be an artist in PNG. Especially as I work against any sense that I am yet another educated white man extracting from the profound richness of PNG.
GN: You have located the project in the social practice genre and you reached out to me and I also work with social practice. Yet sometimes I’ve wondered why you started following me on Instagram?
NW: Well, I'm interested in Gesamtkunstwerk, total artworks, and the image of your work, The Temple (2021,) from your show Our Silver City, 2094 at Nottingham Contemporary really worked for me on that level. It was clearly a total artwork.
In that project and many of your projects you capture what I feel is important in art that I also don’t see a lot of, I like to celebrate that. It is rare to find other people doing what I am trying to achieve. I just wanted to celebrate your success in something that I try to achieve myself.
I am also looking to expand this project, because in doing Haus Tumbuna I've removed myself from the art world, but now that the film is coming to fruition, I was trying to find some people who would understand this project at its deepest level, and I noticed you're interested in healing the museum and decolonial concepts and your work is very rich and considered in the way that you look at an artefact or an artwork. I've often had to justify my practice as art, and so I was looking for people who would see this project for what it really is and not have to dance around on the surface. Having seen your work and research it felt like you were qualified to do that.
GN: It makes sense that you resonated with The Temple. I have lived and worked in many different Indigenous and hippie communities and the architecture of The Temple is meant to be both reminiscent of a modernist exhibition structure but also refer to traditional building forms such as African Adobe houses or sweatlodges of Canadian First Nations peoples.
After following your project one of the reasons I wanted to have this discussion was my interest in the balance between our social practices and economics. For example in my fashion and economic project COVERSLUT© founded in 2018, we sell all the clothes as Pay What You Can. And so, one of the questions I have is about the economic structure of Haus Tumbuna and how that works?
NW: The surf camp that I used to run made quite a lot of profit and it's a community project because the local people who work there get to earn an income, their kids school fees are paid and they get timber surfboards. Also, a committee made up of village elders makes decisions about the surf camp income and how it can be used for culture, the empowerment of Women, Health and education.
Haus Tumbuna was established under Culture. The empowerment of women is in there too. Initially the project was funded and supported by the surf camp but now we are looking to become autonomous and self-sufficient. And in some ways we are beginning to achieve that.
We grow way more timber than we need on land that belongs to the village that had previously been deforested. We only need to mill two or three trees a year and these trees take three to four years to grow to maturity in the tropics. So it's not hard for us to grow twenty trees, sell some and then keep enough for us to be self-sufficient.
GN: Do you see the project also as an ecological project, especially given the illegal logging in the region? How do you see Haus Tumbuna fitting into that debate?
NW: Yes, in two ways. We're making surfboards that you can compost and put back on your garden and they're homegrown. So, it's culturally and environmentally beneficial.
In terms of illegal logging, the surf camp is actually located on the premises of a former illegal logging camp. And the patron of the project, the chief, who is the leader and founder of the surf camp is also a Supreme Court Judge and he managed to finally kick off illegal loggers twenty years ago.
Some of the locals lost their income and only got very small payouts for the trees when the loggers were kicked off and that was the impetus to start the surf camp. Prior to Haus Tumbuna the surf camp was already a DIY project that tended to nature and supported the local community, in a sustainable way, which is why the ethos was reinforced and developed into Haus Tumbuna. Where, if you're surfing in this area you should use local surfboards that are more sustainable and culturally appropriate.
GN: How do you feel as a white male coming from New Zealand with heritage in the Ukraine working within the Indigenous population? Especially given your project works with a lot of female Indigenous women surfers. How do you negotiate that power dynamic?
NW: It is a really complex issue because I initially came to the region as a leader of the surf camp and I managed 30 staff. I came into villages as the representative of that project, but I was always supervised by the chief. As a Supreme Court Judge he was off doing bigger, more important things than me. But I was his representative. So, I always had the luxury of being guided by him, a really considered, conscious and qualified person. In that process I was well schooled with protocol, process, hierarchies and systems. My predecessor had made horrendous mistakes. I learned, you know, I listened to other people to understand the mistakes they had made so I could improve on that.
But it has been really challenging. The many cycles of colonisation that Papa New Guinea has gone through continues to impact everybody. In the process I had to really democratise my processes and be as horizontal as possible. By working communally, I became more qualified and more capable each day. But it has been an ongoing process that I am still working on. I’ve been very privileged to have a great advisor and supervisor and I continue to tread as carefully as I can.
GN: So, PNG is located in the Asia Pacific region. When we're thinking about ‘art world’ regions, how do you feel about this project in that regional context? There is a lot of energy and artworld forces in the Asia Pacific with its distinct art market, biennale and Triennale circuit. Is it important for you to connect to that region or do you want the project to extend into the global north? Or is it not important at all?
NW: I don't really think about those bigger regional forces. I situate this project in and for PNG. When I think about how the project can extend or be communicated on a global scale, I wouldn’t say it is specific to an Asia Pacific regional context. For the majority of the project, the art world has not been a concern, as the energy of the project has been directed towards the local community. The film we have developed is a way to expand and communicate the project into a wider context.
GN: OK, so it doesn't represent a new art movement within the Asian Pacific art world?
NW: I hope so, but honestly this was not our agenda. I was trying to share my research and use this experience in a way that supported the larger project goals.
GN: Let’s talk about the new film, specifically what was the impetus to make a film and not make an installation project or write a book?
NW: So we were doing the project for a number of years and were included in other people's films, books, symposiums and articles. The project was always represented really badly. There seemed to be a narrative of a heroic white man coming to teach someone else and that's the complete antithesis of what the project is. We came to PNG and observed what's there and we want to celebrate and expand what was already happening in the community. There was nothing for us to fix but there was a lot we have and continue to learn from the community.
I actually started making a book, which is half finished, and then I didn't feel confident that it was going to be the best method to articulate the project. That's how we decided to make the film as the best way to express what's happening and to share the depth, richness and careful design of the project appropriately.
As a side note, since we started making the film we have had some coverage that represents the project well.
GN: Do you see the film as an artwork or is it a straightforward documentary? I watched some of the film and it is very mesmerising.
NW: It is an artwork and it can be a documentary too. But it's not a straightforward documentary, there's no voiceover, it is a visual document that uses imagery to show the success of what we have done. We consciously decided to not talk about what we are doing, the film is an illustration or a model. It shows ways of working communally along the lines of Fritz Haeg's project Edible Estates that I mentioned earlier.
GN: Where would you ideally like it to be shown, at film festivals or in galleries and museums?
NW: We will happily work with galleries, museums and film festivals. My dream is to exhibit it in the way we do in PNG. When we screen films, we start a generator, we have our little PA system and data projector. Everyone sits out in the field under the stars and we play the film. I would love to take this film on tour and show it in small places in this format. That feels like the natural way to share it. But there's value in exhibiting in certain museums, galleries and festivals. But we don’t want to show it just anywhere, we want to ensure it is screened in the right way.
GN: So, you're not really interested in circulating the film in the global circuit or market, it requires a specific context. This brings me to my question about how the local community was involved in the making of the film, and was this important or not? Were they involved in any scripting processes?
NW: The film is somewhat scripted. Most of the script was developed through a process of going to Elders and asking if they could show us certain things we were interested in. We controlled and scripted the surfing images and the surfboard making to contextualise it in village life, the traditional crafts and the DIY spirit of the village. It was also important to capture the connectedness to nature and spirit.
GN: So was the local community involved? Were they part of the crew or was it technically shot?
NW: It was technically shot. So we compiled a shot-list of aspects of the community we wanted to document and I acted as the liaison. Given I had worked in the community so much I was facilitating conversations with villages, Elders and other people in the community. That liaison process was also undertaken by the local leaders. Many of the people who make the surfboards are leaders in their village and so they assisted too.
GN: Who is the cinematographer? Were they Australian and who were some of the other crew?
NW: We brought over fimmakers and cinematographers from Australia. Gary Parker and Matty Hannon who are Thunderbox Productions who we knew well. I've worked with a lot of different TV and film people in Papua New Guinea. It's a really hard place to shoot and you have to ensure cultural sensitivity and awareness. So, we selected Thunderbox for two reasons: they were tough enough to deal with some of the conditions of filming in Papa New Guinea, which not many are, and they were also sensitive and caring and understood that they needed to tread carefully when we were documenting cultural content.
GN: Lastly, what do you hope the long term effects of the project will be for the local community but also, possibly the Asia Pacific region?
NW: So first and foremost, when we've been in articles or other films, I always come back and screen them in the village. Hundreds of people will walk to the screening and everyone is so proud to be included in a bigger, global discussion. This film project is a very heightened version of that. It is an opportunity to represent, in a careful and considered way, the community and their work. Importantly by people who they trust and have worked with closely for a long period of time.
The key aim is to show the rich magic, culture and spirit of the people we work with. It is an important and alternative narrative to tell, one that is not widely reported about Papua New Guinea. And the regular narratives, many of them negative, aren’t the truth of what the experience of PNG culture is when you are on the ground. So, to be able to capture and share the richness of what is here, to bring locals into global conversations is one of the main drivers behind the film project.
Acknowledgements: Haus Tumbuna was initiated under the supervision of Justice Nicholas Kirriwom and the Tupira Council. The Project was founded by Justice Nicholas Kirriwom, Nicki Wynnychuk and master shaper Bryan Bates. Haus Tumbuna has three initiated shapers. Head shaper Robyn Minickri from Tavulte, Peter Kawus from Korak and Ben Sunte from Meiwok. The Haus Tumbuna community stakeholders are Suaru, Rurunut, Meriman, Meiwok, Sikor, Tavulte, Korak and Ulingan Villages, Madang PNG.