Festival of Pacific Arts
Festival of Pacific Arts
Hon Richard Marles MP
Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs
As a neutral observer of the 1984 Victorian Football League Grand Final I can still feel the packed Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd rising as one as Leon Baker put the Bombers in front in a last quarter comeback that saw Essendon run over the top of Hawthorn and win their first flag in almost twenty years. While I care nothing for either team I loved that game because I loved that crowd. Watching the happy crowd and being a part of it, is exhilarating.
This week, compared to all my sports fan experiences of the past, I witnessed the best crowd I’d ever seen. And it was in the most unexpected of places: the opening ceremony of the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
The crowd was led by a group of 500 school kids who – with excitement, energy and distilled joy – set alight a 15,000 strong crowd and created a truly extraordinary event that put the Pacific, in all its colour, on display.
The centrepiece of the Opening was a procession of all the participating countries who each gave a ten minute performance.
Australia was represented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers. The headline Australian act for the two week festival are the Chooky Dancers of Bran Nue Dae fame. Their performance of Zorba the Greek brought down the house at the exclusive preview the night before. But their powder was kept dry at the opening ceremony which involved traditional dance that did Australia proud.
The next highlight was the Tahitians. Hip swinging is the signature of Polynesian dance. With resplendent yellow head-dresses and grass skirts that accentuated the hip movement, the Tahitian women swung up a storm while the bare-chested men provided a testosterone packed backdrop.
Having performed directly in front of the official box the dancers went off to the 500 school kids for another performance. The result was screams and cheering which managed to drown out the next contingent’s performance and send a shock of electricity through the entire night.
Representing New Zealand was a troupe that had won the New Zealand Haka championships. With faces painted, eyes bulging and tongues sticking out this group of thirty men and women proceeded to hop and skip, to chant and yelp. Wearing traditional costumes and carrying spears and clubs they defined intimidation.
Their repeat performance for the school kids sent the crowd into a frenzy. Within a few minutes they had the crowd Hakaring in their seats, utterly lost in the moment and in a total state of delirium.
By the time the last of the countries had finished their performances, night had well and truly set in. And at just this moment a fuse blew and the National Stadium was plunged into darkness. It was the kind of random event which defines the Pacific. But without missing a beat the crowd sprung into action. Almost immediately mobile phones were turned on and held in the air. Before long the entire stadium was a sea of white lights as if being a scene from Avatar. The crowd roared its approval at its own achievement.
Eventually, power was restored and the home country had their chance to display their wares. In a mass dance which involved model crocodiles, sharks and butterflies along with on-field fireworks, lighting and music the result was simply magical.
The night culminated in a fireworks display launched from a hill high above the stadium. With crackers exploding to music, the crowd were giddy in an exhibition rarely seen in the Solomons. The noise managed to scare a few fruitbats who circled in the sky silhouetted by the fireworks’ smoke and light adding a final touch of magic to a most remarkable event.
Occasionally in life, caught unawares, you have the chance to witness something truly special. Last Monday night was just such an occasion.
Yet it was even more special when you consider its context. Less than a decade ago Solomon Islands was gripped by the Tensions which had plunged the country into a state of lawlessness that prompted the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
In just nine years security and relative prosperity have returned to the Solomons such that in the space of a few months they will have hosted the Oceanic Football Confederation Championship, the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts, the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal and a royal visit by William and Kate.
Given our pivotal involvement in RAMSI, Australians should feel proud of our contribution to a neighbour. As a truly regional mission it stands as the signature achievement of the Pacific countries. But most of all, credit is due to Solomon Islanders themselves.
If they can only harness the pulsating energy from Monday night, they have ahead of them a bright future.