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Is there such a creature as “traditional culture”? *

* Switch language to english for english version of the article *

As explained by Sean Mallon in his now famous ‘Against Tradition’ (2010), the story began with Samoan writer Albert Wendt. While Wendt started his discussion on the word “tradition” and its use in the 1970s, the debate took a larger scope in the 1990s, as he was working on the creation of a museum - Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand – as member of the Pacific Advisory Committee. Wendt had a simple request then: to abandon the term “traditional art”1 in the future museum. But why?

       Le mot « tradition » ou « traditionnel » est souvent utilisé en anthropologie, mais également en histoire de l’art afin d’évoquer, en tout cas pour le Pacifique, un phénomène qui a eu lieu dans le passé et, la plupart du temps, pendant une période précoloniale. C’est aussi une façon de parler de choses considérées comme « anciennes » et donc « authentiques » qui s’opposent alors aux termes « contemporain  » et « inauthentique ». Voici le début du problème tel que l’ont expliqué Wendt et Mallon.

The main issue arising with the word “tradition” is temporality. When something is referred to as “traditional”, at least in the context of Pacific cultures, it often refers to something which was created or happened before the arrival of European colonisers, or continued in the exact same manner. It is in this way that for some, being “traditional” is equivalent to being “authentic”, to being “pure and untouched by the outside world”.2 However, with this conception, a possible change and transformation of this so-called “tradition” is impossible, which leaves Pacific cultures with a “true” past but no future worth considering.

        Following this use of the word “tradition”, “contemporary” becomes its direct opposite. But there another problem arises. Indeed, by using these two words as opposites, they become antinomic and cannot be used in one singular context. This implies that, considering that something “contemporary” is something “new” and “innovative”, contemporaneity becomes irrelevant to past practices. However, we know that it is far from being the case as several cultures have got concepts and or beliefs that defy the dichotomy between “tradition” and “contemporary”. In most situations and cases, the concepts work together.

The Indigenous Australian dance company Bangarra Dance Theatre, which we have presented several times here and here, is often defined as a dance company which intermingles “traditional” Indigenous dance and “contemporary” dance. But even though the company has used this definition themselves, they warn people against any misuse and misunderstanding of both terms.

By fixing the term “contemporary” to the form, it could be argued that we are implying “post-colonial”, “modern” or “non-traditional”. Yet with many new works sourcing their inspiration from the Indigenous cultures that have existed since ancient times, what is “traditional” and what is “new” can exist simultaneously”.3

Indeed, as the title of the 2019 Bangarra production, 30 years of sixty-five thousand, makes clear Australia is considered as having the longest continuing living culture in the world. So, contrary to implications of the narrow erroneous use of the word “tradition” mentioned earlier (which implies that “tradition” stopped upon the Europeans’ arrival), Australia’s “traditional” culture is still thriving in the 21st century. In their work, Bangarra explores the full meaning of a what a “contemporary tradition” means, which involves the respect of a number of protocols: in order to respect Indigenous culture, these involve referring to a community elder who has got the knowledge of and rights on his/her land, beliefs and cultural practices. As a dance company, Bangarra perpetuates Indigenous Australian culture in all its forms through language, both spoken and danced.

But if this is true for Australia, what about other Pacific cultures? In their work done about Te Papa Tongarewa museum, the Advisory Committee has chosen “custom” as an alternative term to “tradition”. Indeed, the word is directly linked to some Pacific concept, especially that of kastom in Vanuatu. As described by Margot Kreidl and Garance Nyssen in Le Centre Culturel du Vanuatu – Petite visite dans une grande maison de réunion, the kastom is “both the material and immaterial parts of the pre-colonial ni-van culture that has the capacity to continue evolving in the contemporary world”.4 This definition is evocative of Indigenous Australians’ continuing culture.

        Words have ideological baggage. If the word “tradition” is used, the background should be taken into consideration in order not to take shortcuts in the history of Pacific Ocean peoples and their living cultures. 

Clémentine Débrosse

*The title is a quotation from WENDT, A., 1976. ‘Towards a New Oceania’. Mana Review, 1 (1), p. 52 (pp. 49-60).

Image à la une : Lisa Reihana, he tautoko,  2006, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. © Photo : Kerry Brown.

1 MALLON, S., 2010. ‘Against Tradition’. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 22 – 2. Hawaii, Hawai’I University Press, p. 362.

2 MALLON, S., 2010. ‘Against Tradition’. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 22 – 2. Hawaii, Hawai’I University Press, p. 364.

3 BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE, 2019. 30 Years of Sixty-Five Thousand – Study Guide for Teachers and Students, p. 5.

4 KREIDL, M., et NYSSEN, G., 2018. « Le Centre Culturel du Vanuatu – Petite visite dans une grande maison de réunion ». In CASOAR., dernière consultation le 23 mars 2020.


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