‘Honouring the F.M.I. Sisters of Vunapope’: Reflections on Lisa Hilli’s Keynote for the ‘Sharing Pacific Lives in Australia’ Workshop

Last week, members and friends of the Oceania Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography were grateful to learn about the overlooked her-stories of the F.M.I. Sisters of Vunapope. Gunantuna (Tolai) artist and scholar Lisa Hilli uses a creative research practice to tell this story, she informed us in her keynote.  Composed of 45 brilliant, brave and selfless Melanesian women, the congregation lived through the brutal Japanese occupation of Rabaul during World War II. She explained, ‘At the risk of their own lives, the F.M.I. Sisters dedicated themselves to providing locally grown produce to Australian, European and Unserdeutsch children held captive at Ramale prisoner of war camp for almost three years.’ 

Inspired by this act of courage, Lisa Hilli, used this as an opportunity to foster a sense of visual kinship between Australian audiences and the F.M.I. sisters of Vunapope for an Australian War Memorial commissioned work from 2018-2020. She honoured these women with an incredible alternative and generative methodology, blending archives, photography and textiles, to demonstrate these Melanesian women’s historical experiences and contributions throughout a war that was not of their making. 

Hilli acknowledged that her positionality as a Papua New Guinean woman allowed her a critical standpoint from which to undertake the research. She considered what stories were marginalised from the mainstream canon of World War II in Papua New Guinea. This was a story that went beyond the dominant Australian war narrative of the Kokoda Track, Melanesian Fuzzy Wuzzy angels and White-Australian war heroes. 

However, just as these stories remained virtually unknown to the general public, they were initially hidden to Hilli too. Hilli told an anecdote of meeting with the late artist and cultural historian Gideon Kakabin, an authority on the war in Papua New Guinea, and asked if he knew anything of the F.M.I. Vunapope sisters that she came across in her own research, to which he responded that he hadn’t heard of them. The fact that these women remained unknown in popular PNG history piqued her interest, so she vowed to learn more. She recounted: 

On another level, Hilli studied the intricate aspects of Japanese imperialism through engagement with Japanese visual source material to discover other femininities that were erased in the prominent PNG war-histories. Through her emphasis on visual research, she learned of the primarily Korean, Okinawan and Japanese ‘comfort women’ that were brought over to Papua New Guinea to reside in comfort stations, known as ‘consolation units’, and were forced to provide sexual and intimate labour to Japanese soldiers. She realised that while war histories are often of men, she didn’t want her concentration on Melanesian women’s histories to obscure the presence of other persecuted women throughout the war. Speaking on viewing the documentary film “Senso Daughters (Daughters of War)” (1989) by Noriko Sekiguchi, she said:

Hilli’s fieldwork funding allowed her to visit the site of Ramale internment camp and travel to Vunapope to meet with Sister Margaret Maladede, the resident archivist based at the Vunapope Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul. Sister Margaret gave her an invaluable source of information: a manuscript of the 100-year history (1912-2012) of the congregation of the F.M.I. Sisters. Here, she wanted to centre Indigenous Melanesian voices of those who had lived through WWII to be the foundation of her work. She explained:

The research was also multi-sited where she was able to undertake further archival research at the National Library of Australia and at the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau in the Australian capital of Canberra on unceded Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. She found many images of the F.M.I. sisters and studied the images to learn as much as she could about their lives. She recounted:

What eventually emerged after 2 years of critical and creative research was a stunning digital collage of the F.M.I. sisters with 45 black cotton cinctures to compliment the visual work. This was Hilli’s profoundly personal way of honouring these women for their duties and relentless service. She explained the final product of her research:

After her keynote, Oceania Working Party members and affiliates let Lisa’s words sink in and listened to a beautiful dialogue between two pawa-meris of the Papua New Guinean diaspora in Australia, Lisa Hilli and actress and writer Wendy Mocke. Sharing stories such as those of the F.M.I. Sisters of Vunapope made the group rethink some of the important questions around Pacific biography: What protocols do we need to follow in doing Pacific biography? How do we get away from literary texts and academic canons in telling Pacific lives? How do we make knowledge accessible and creatively engaging for our communities? How do we decolonise biography to move it from the individual to the collective and back again? How do we be radically inclusive and highlight the endeavors of women, LGBTs and differently-abled peoples who are often sidelined in conventional narratives of the Pacific? Hilli’s presentation raised as many questions as it pointed to solutions, and remains something to be considered in the future work of the Oceania Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography!

Tenkyu tru Lisa!

Lisa Hilli is passionate about sharing Melanesian histories through storytelling experiences. As a contemporary artist Lisa uses her practice to creatively research gender and body politics, adornment, matrilineality, and indigenous and colonial history interpreted through art. Lisa is a descendant of the Gunantuna (Tolai) people of Papua New Guinea. She holds an MFA by Research from RMIT University. She is a member of the PowerhouseGalang, an international indigenous think tank for the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, an advisor for the School of Art, RMIT University and fellow member of the Oceania Working Party for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Lisa is an incoming PhD researcher at the ANU.

This keynote was part of the “Sharing Pacific Lives in Australia”: Oceania Working Party Workshop Namba Wan. The workshop was organised by Katerina Teaiwa, Talei Luscia Mangioni and Nicholas Hoare with funding from the Asia Pacific Innovation Program (APIP) from the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

To view the full length version of Lisa Hilli’s presentation, make sure to check out the CHL Youtube channel.

To learn more about the Oceania Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, visit us at the Australian Dictionary of Biography website, the Pacific Biography in Australia Facebook page or email us at OceaniaWorkingParty@gmail.com.

This piece was written by Talei Luscia Mangioni (@taleiluscia) on behalf of the organising committee of the Oceania Working Party.

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