Thursday, April 14, 2011

A lahi dairi for Ulli Beier


Something we have to do lest we forget.

It is the sorrow of the lonely and the burning of the dead. When a member of the community passes on we hold the ritual of emptying the house, bringing out all the possessions and where possible burning the clothes that won’t be worn any more. A head dress, a dancing gear, the bagis and musical instruments, all distributed among neighbours or burnt. And then, when the spirits are appeased, we carry on with life.

Motsy David, a lecturer in Theatre Arts at UPNG along with storyboard feels that we must do that in honour of Professor Ulli Beier. Ulli Beier was the first Professor of the Literature Department of the University of Papua New Guinea. He is survived by wife Georgina and sons Sebastian and Tunji. But he is also friend and family to many Papua New Guineans.

Now there are so many things that can be said about Ulli Beier, here as much as elsewhere in the world. But storyboard has his own story to tell about the man.

He was not quite that man that a student would look at from a safe distance and say, “That’s professor so-and-so” and then get scared of walking up to say hello or talk to. He was so down to earth that a student would hardly believe he was a professor at all. But his name rang loud and clear at literary and art festivals and conference tables throughout the world. Whether it was Lagos or London or New York, or somewhere in mid-Europe, people knew who Ulli Beier was, what he was really about.

In 1977 storyboard found himself in the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos, being interviewed by newscasters there about literature in Papua New Guinea. As much as the names Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe, and counterpart names such as Vincent Eri and Albert Maori Kiki, the name Ulli Beier kept coming into the mind as a reminder that his influence in virtually any literary and artistic albeit cultural setting was enormous. Who could do without a name like Ulli Beier in the academia or the book publishing world, particularly in the 60s and 70s?

In December of the same year storyboard again found himself walking within the grounds of the Sydney Opera House in the company of random site-seers when one of whom asked if he knew Ulli Beier. Yes, said storyboard; as a matter of fact he sent me here, to represent PNG at the 42nd P.E.N. International Congress. A further exchange revealed that the man was from Harper and Row Publishers reputed to be the biggest American publishing house then. He also was interested in “work” by Ulli Beier, meaning literature written by Papua New Guineans under the entrepreneurship of Beier. But his request came too early perhaps at around that time because Ulli Beier himself was in the process of discovering the so-called finest writer in Papua New Guinea.

Some six years later storyboard, again, found himself at a little place called John Hay Library, belonging to Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island (USA), where he came across a fine volume of folk poetry from Papua New Guinea. The editor? Why, Ulli Beier, of course. It was the finest little publication storyboard had ever seen and to own it would mean luxury in the Western world. Made of tapa cloth in design as cover, all art work carefully done by Georgina Beier, it contains works by Albert Maori Kiki, Allan Natachee, Kauage, Jakupa, Akis and some of the earlier and most unheard of names in PNG literature, not to mention a few familiar ones from Ulli Beier’s creative writing classes of the 60s. Now John Hay Library is famous for the rare books and manuscript category of cataloguing, and finding Ulli Beier there meant that he had had quite an impact even around that area of New England. The other possible places of rarity as far as books are concerned would be Yale and Princeton if not Harvard. But that was it. The man was there, already, and represented by a highly affluent book binder around New Jersey/Connecticut area.

He was interested in books as much as art and wood carvings. But his interest in that category of art far exceeds an anthropologist’s vision of discovering a new idea, a new race of people altogether, and defining these. No, Ulli Beier did more than that. He did not just discover the Papua New Guinea mind, and a creative one at that. He found a new definition that far exceeds any dimension of art, Western, Oriental or other. It was a separate world altogether where both entities merge to form that new definition, that new meaning. For all art is an endless search of new discoveries and meanings. In Papua New Guinea Ulli Beier found his art and set his mind at rest.

Peter Trist’s email to storyboard Tuesday 5th April reads in part: “Ulli died on Sunday 3rd April, 2011 after a long illness. He was 88 and lived a long eventful and productive life.

He often spoke of you with warmth and affection and followed your career with much interest.”

When storyboard was completing his matriculation at a Melbourne high school in the late 60s one of his ambitions was to meet this great professor of literature in person. Providence had been kind. Ulli Beier joined the faculty of the University of Papua New Guinea at around that time, and also at a time when the colonial world doubted if a “university” would be established in the Territory. But what that doubting world quite overlooked was the fact that the new school, under Gunther’s Vic-Chancellorship, was actually in the process of recruiting the best there was in the world. And that is how Ulli Beier came to Papua New Guinea.

At the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies John Kolia, a naturalized citizen and under Ulli Beier’s directorship in the late 70s and early 80s, wrote so many good stories about the simple yet believable lifestyle of the locality that surrounded him. Among those writings was a careful mention of the scared essence of lahi dairi, a certain kind of communal gathering that signifies the sorrows of the lonely and the burning of the dead. There is a bit of feasting involved in this all on account of saying good bye to the ones gone and celebrating the notion that life must continue.

We at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences which houses the Literature and Language, Journalism and Creative Arts, Political Science, the Anthropology and Sociology and the History, Philosophy and Gender Studies strands, along with Modern Languages, do believe sincerely that a lahi dairi is in order, shortly, and in honor of this great professor of literature who at once decolonized and accommodated the minds of both sides of the world. 

A lahi dairi will be held in Ulli Beier's honour at the University of Papua New Guinea at a date to be set immediately after the University's graduation Day (29th April). There will be an entire afternoon of memorial service, speeches, an exhibition, poetry recitals, short drama sketches, food and drinks, commemorating the life of this great man who lived (and still does) among us.