The arts are not always in a prominent place on the political agenda in Africa, Latin-America and Asia. Nevertheless, an increasing number of governments recognise the importance of culture in itself and in connection to social and economic development. Part twenty-seven in a series on cultural policy in non-Western countries.
Papua New Guinea is known to be the most culturally diverse country in the world. More than eight hundred different population groups with their own language live in the archipelago. But since it gained independence from Australia in 1975, the country's government has faced a complicated challenge: which language will unify the country?
The colonial occupiers were the ones who introduced English. In the mean time, a pidgin was developing on the Tok Pisin plantations that grew to become a symbol of national unity after the country gained independence. Nevertheless, English continued to be the common language in the world of business, education and the government. This changed when informal village schools were established by worried parents whose children were becoming alienated from their own language and culture. The government had no choice but to implement reforms in the educational system. Since 1995, children have started their schooling in their own language and English is introduced gradually.
The high cultural content of Papua New Guinea, for which the National Cultural Committee has borne responsibility since 1994, is accompanied by other serious concerns. For centuries the group of islands has produced art objects that have found their way to Western museums by means which were not always legal. For example, the government has identified nine sculptures currently in the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco as national cultural property that should never have left Papua New Guinea.
Contemporary art is a recent phenomenon in the archipelago that is limited to the cities, where only eighteen percent of the population lives. An incubator for the arts is the National Arts School established in 1976, where pioneers like Timothy Akis, Mathias Kauage, David Lasisi and Jakupa Ako were schooled. The Moresby Arts Centre in Port Moresby is not only a stage for theatre, dance and visual arts but also home to the provincial art council.