Sunday, February 15, 2015

Back to West Papua at last!

It was difficult to make this "Hungku turn-a-round" in the short time allowed by international flights but guide Yoris and my friend Annette at Asti made it work. It was important to speak at the Heritage Society in Jakarta and exciting to visit Asti in Bogor ( Asti is doing an amazing job rehabilitating and releasing animals belonging to endangered species.

Arriving in Manokuari, West Papua I found chief Moses surprisingly emotional. He was reduced to tears of joy and made my visit a wonderful reunion.

What did I expect? They wanted water and electricity and now they have both. It was meant to be a "good thing," but I was so surprised. Hungku is so much different. Gone is so much of the primitivism that I love. Tribal houses on poles still remain, but the village is re-designed and all new houses are on the ground with cement floors. They are in open spaces with little roads of dirt. Bright blue synthetic houses run from house to house. Houses have windows. The hoses are the water system. The windows are indications, and they are no longer afraid of tribal wars.

We drove to the largest of these new houses. Here we would spend the night after a long wild journey by four wheel drive. Yaris, Moses, and I had long enough arms to reach and hold onto the roll bars. Thomas sat in the back. The rest including Thomas' wife and several children held onto us and each other as we dodged trees, boulders, and gaping erosion holes. We missed by inches bright yellow bulldozers and road building equipment.

Our exhausted driver, a Muslim from the Celebes went right into the new house and set up a place to pray and do his ritual washing. Yoris began cutting vegetables and boiling rice for dinner. I looked around. The cement floored house has five rooms and a little porch with a chair (Imagine!) that faced Mt. Hungku (as on the map Moses had drawn several years ago). A large cloth banner hung on the exterior wall. A colored logo and printing in Indonesian.  It said:

District Government Arfak Mountains office politics and National unity protection of the public.
Dr Dominggus Mandacan Ullong

But, the good news was the logo had a colored picture and it was a picture of the mountain and the Bower Bird.

I was so happy and even happier as tribal friends came down the road the road carrying a real mattress for me. It was still covered in its plastic wrap. Everyone came to visit and show off their new wives and babies and darkness fell. Suddenly little tiny lights came on and people cheered. Electricity! We would have light for one half hour.

Their cheers cleared my confused mind for I suddenly realized they are happy on their land. They want to stay when they leave the mountains for it is hot and dirty and busy. They get headaches and are confused and malaria troubles them. The road helps them get their beautiful vegetables to market and they can stay home to enjoy the cool quiet environment.

Water and electricity appear to be a good moral boost for these beautiful people!

There would not be time to build my usual "Hotel Hungku" and visit the bowers and Moses understood. He took my two disposable cameras and four of his men to climb to the bowers at dawn.

One was his grandson, Bayan, whose mother had just died of malaria. Apparently, she refused medication which she believed caused cancer.

When the men returned in the late morning Moses was sad. "They are not ready yet and your old Hotel Hungku is covered in vines." Bayan had a big gash in his bare foot, but was stoic. I cleaned it and wrapped it and fell grateful he has been to the Bowers.

As we left  he displayed his affection as is customary by placing his hand on his heart. I retured the gesture and felt happy this teen age boy had been to the Bowers with his grandfather and knew the story. Some day he will be chief.

The developed photographs show there is still activity at the bowers but there is a disturbance.

I left forty revised copies of The Clever One in their language and English for the children. Twenty of these were paid for by Maureen Hogan of Marblehead.

Hopefully I can return and focus on the bird. The people will be okay, but will the bird adapt? Will there be a renaissance in Bower Bird History? 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The bowerbird exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum has now ended its' one year viewing.

News from West Papua has been sparse but a recent contact with Hungku by an ornithologist gives a glowing report. No trees have been cut and no birds have been disturbed or eaten. Sadly, only two of the twenty children's books have reached the mountains. The books did sell well at the Peabody Museum gift shop and it has been given a new cover and republished. I will take twenty more with me when I speak in Djakarta at the Indonesian Heritage Society, October 29th.

The PowerPoint talks will be revised with less emphasis on biology and more on technique of conservation. Their brochure reads as follows:
"Artist Mary Jo McConnell has been making annual trips since 1992 from her home in Massachusetts to the Arfak Mountains of West Papua for one purpose - to paint the creations of the Vogelkop bowerbirds in their natural habitat. Her keen observations recorded the bower birds' creative behaviors using endemic materials. The local people of
Hungku village were only two generations removed from cannibalism, and tribesmen were inquisitive about Mary Jo's intentions. However, her brushes canvases and paint proved no threat to them and friendships grew. These annual visits spawned the idea of a bird saving a people who would in turn honor their environment."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The September trip to Indonesia was a surprise. The intent was to paint another canvas of Bower Bird creations and to reassure the tribe of continued interest in the birds. This time another purpose won over the original.

Two years ago Liza Walsh, author of “Fairy House Handbook” called me. She had seen the Bower Bird show at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, Maine (September 2009). She wanted to discuss the possibility of writing a children’s book using my illustrations. For me this would be an opportunity to explain to the children of Hungku just why I was painting the creations and respect for the treasures in their village.
What did I want to tell them, she asked? We put our thoughts together and by the end of July 2012 she had written a nice little book. I felt it should be in the tribal language so I called upon Dan and Barbara Lunow, retired missionaries who had worked in the area.They kindly translated Liza’s words and “Voila”, we had a little book and published thirty copies in early September. I had hoped to have a different cover, hard back, and waterproof paper as this would be a first book for this area. Let’s get this much done, Liza said, and we will work on it later. So off I went to Papua with our little first editions.

Clothes, canvas, paints and camping supplies, were checked to Indonesia but I hand carried the books. The trip was unusually long and difficult, but my dear Balinese driver met me and drove me off to my familiar studio in Ubud. The next day I bought a local telephone and was sad to learn there was a ban on American travel in Indonesia (due to the death of the Libyan Ambassador). I tried to connect often with Yoris, my Papuan guide but conversing was difficult due to severe storms in Manokwari and trouble with the tower. Moses’ hand phone always responded “out of area” (I later discovered he had a new phone; probably lost the old one in a river someplace some suggested).
As the days passed I began to panic. How would I find a dependable address so I could send the books if it became necessary? Nothing I have ever sent to Manokwari has ever gotten there, much less to the mountains. Bali is beautiful but I had some work to do. A couple of little canvas’s helped me try to paint. One morning was spent just watching ants. How very strange they were only interested in the Alizarin crimson paint on my palette. They walked right by the blues, the greens and the yellows and rushed by each other giving high-fives.
Water hens roosted in the frangipani trees. Didn’t know they could fly, but guess it’s better than spending the night ankle deep in water. Each evening white birds flew to the Sacred Village of Petula a couple miles North of Ubud to roost and nest. It’s amazing, flocks of Javan Pond Herons, Cattle Egrets, little Egrets and Short Billed Egrets. The trees become white with hundreds of white birds jostling for a spot on a branch. My driver hates to go there because the car emerges covered with droppings. The villagers capitalize by setting up chairs and selling cold drinks and “Bier Bintang” to on lookers. One Egret often stopped near my studio to fish in the lotus pond. The hens that lay my breakfast eggs get put in baskets at night and are run up the trees to avoid being eaten by dragons.

Finally Yoris said the ambassador had lifted the ban and he was free to help me, so on September 28th I flew from Denpasar to Macassat in the Celebes Islands. I carried only the books as it was too late to consider going into the mountains. By four o’clock the next morning we were on the runway to Manokwari. By four fifteen we were back at the gate with a broken airplane. All morning we waited for a plane part from Djakarta and then there was a discussion of getting another airplane. Passengers from Irian began to get quite upset and food vouchers were passed around. People wondered why I wanted to go to Irian. One gentleman who spoke English said he knew of the Bower Bird and of Moses. He offered to carry some books for me if I had to turn back. Flight personnel escorted me to an office to discuss my dilemma. There I met an interesting man from Spain who was trying to get food to his charter dive boat (diving with whale sharks!). They sent us both to an Executive lounge where we would be informed of any progress. Others went to hotels by bus for a “rest”. Txus was well traveled and said that due to storms Manokwari travel was already backed-up there and if I did get there I might have trouble getting out. He also said if we didn’t take off by three we wouldn’t be able to land as Manokwari has no lights. Three o’clock came and went and I had to make a difficult decision. Txus also offered to carry some books for me.
I quickly wrote out little instructions to go with the books: Yoris phone number, Moses phone number and my Indonesian phone number plus directions to the little village of cement block houses where the mountain people dwell when away from their village.
By late afternoon the notes and books were all in good hands in Macassar hotels and that evening I was on Garuda Airlines flying back to Denpasar. Follow-up phone calls assured the books are in Manokwari. Clever books, clever birds.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In the studio preparing for a show FISH TALES opening April 2nd.

Proceeds may enable a return to West Papua (not Irian Jaya anymore) in September. Reviewing field notes proves there is much more to learn from "The Clever One."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Wondering" is on hold. West Papua tribes are rebelling and seeking independence and the Bower Birds will have to wait. Hopefully the children of Hungku will care for them. An author from Maine is writing a children's book about them. Perhaps it can be translated into Indonesian and even Soab, the local language.

Moving on I have turned to fish. My father loved fishing and my first print was for him, a rainbow trout. Now it is koi, bass, herring, sardines and a whole Jimbardin Bay series from Indonesia which will be shown in Spring 2012 at Christopher Brodigan Gallery at the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. "Alewife" and "Sardines" recently sold at the Frying Pan Gallery in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. "Koi" prints were sold to the Keys Gallery in New York City.

Ditto press in Concord, New Hampshire is in the process of capturing High resolution prints on German Etching of four feather prints. This is inspired by the sale of eight originals to the well known Robert McKracken Peck of Philadelphia. He has just curated a show on Edward Lear's feathers for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to open in spring of 2012.

These sales are wonderful and encouraging but cannot help the Bower Bird. It is good to have a record of their creations.

Visits from my grandchildren in July added fun and enthusiasm. Moments with Michael(age 10) at the Koi pool at the Peabody - Essex museum in Salem, Massachusetts inspired en caustics and a trip for him to Skip Seiglers fishing expedition( His catch can be added to the help of John Michael La Dodge of Hollywood, California and Tristan Howard of Portland, Maine and Skip Seiglers of Marblehead who has given me fillets, heads, tails, and skins of stripers, mackerel, and herring.

Michael made a nice slide show of my birds and granddaughter Cinnamon(age 6) made a video of her sister Willow(age 4) in my gallery. It can be seen on Youtube "Willow at Joey's House".

Today I am doing my version of a large salmon head. Wonderful black markings!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

With boxes of field notes spread across my studio floor and fourteen paintings of the work (or play) of the Vogelkop Bower Birds, I wonder why I was driven or “fascinated” by feathers. Why collect, arrange, wear, paint feathers? I just read Cynthia Gardner’s “A British Invasion of Fascinators” And last month I bought a book “Plumes from Paradise” by Pamela Swadling and read of Plume trade in the (Vogelkop) Birds Head, West New Guinea. A great invasion of plume hunters in Bower Bird territory. Were the Bower Birds the first to use fascinators? My brilliant friend Jimmy loves them because they remind him of flying, having wings, escaping earthly bonds. Checking the dictionary I read: Fascinator. 1. One who or that which fascinates. 2. A scarf of crochet work, lace or the like, narrowing toward the ends, worn as a head covering by women.

I still wonder.

As I work on the 2010 painting of “Leonardo’s” bower a certain sadness settles over my old enthusiasm. I see no “fascinators” in the display. Are the molted feathers no longer available? Have the Sickle Bill Bird of Paradise, King Parrot and Harpy Eagle left Hungku for a safer forest or have they been destroyed by road workers and hunters? I’m afraid a bit of my fascination has fled. No questions will be asked as I’ve promised guide Yoris I will speak only of the Bower Bird while on this trip in the Arfak Mountains. No questions especially about money, water, missionaries or politics. He won’t talk either.

I wonder.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hungku Village has clean water!

The Indonesian government has finished our project. By chartering a truck, hiring a Bugis driver and assistant, we took the new government road to Hungku. The road slices right through the Arfak Mountains. Trees are uprooted and falling off the carved side. There are deep drop-offs on the other. We emerged in a vast meadow of huge lily-like white rhodoendrons! At the tree-line, one looks down upon tiny villages tucked in cloud forest valleys with pristine rivers and gushing waterfalls. A wooden gate divides Hitam and Soab tribal lands and was quickly lifted when they saw Moses!

Yoris, my guide made it clear he would accompany me on this voyage if I asked no questions and spoke only of the Bower Bird. There are obvious tensions and Moses with his "American" experience may be running for Parliament. In this village I saw a cement block and two spigots. People filled buckets with fresh water. The gardens were flourishing.

We climbed to the Bowers and I saw they were undisturbed. The Sicklebill was not present, but Moses insists it will return. We left little glass beads at Bower Four and Moses carefully arranged them on the moss. I gave the children copies of the booklet "The Clever One" from Dowling Walsh. They jumped for joy when they recognized the bowers and elements. As they don't go to school they could read a book of images.
The 2010 painting has a row of beads. I couldn't paint Bower Number Two due to the heavy rain, but Moses posed next to the strange overhang and unusual objects which included a stone, battery and toothbrush.

Uli carries on with the cottage industry work making traditional bags. She made me one of pink and purple which she filled with a pineapple and marquesas from her garden.

Back in Manokwari we cleaned off the layers of mud from the slippery decent and heavy rains and I finally asked Moses
"Is it going to be like Freeport Mining up there?".
"Yes", he said.
"Will the Bower Birds be okay?"
"Yes", he nodded.
"Is the remaining water project money still in the bank?"
"Yes," he said and asked what he should do with it.
"It belongs to Hungku", I said.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed. The environment
cannot be "saved" or totally protected, but this little area of people, plants, and birds has been given a great boost and opportunity to avoid total oblivion in these revolutionary times.

I bought Mose's grandson a guitar and asked him to sing a song about the birds of his forest to tell the people in the city. He seems confused, but stays close to Moses.