Authentic “primitives”?

Port Moresby – Hanuabada, November 1929

In the town of Hanuabada, Ross finds New Guinea’s indigenous culture both carefully preserved and disfigured by modernity.

Hanuabada, a suburb of Port Moresby populated by natives, is the product of a segregation policy that is meant to preserve authentic indigenous culture. According to Ross, it prescribes traditional housing and clothing to the indigenous New Guineans. While he is disdainful of the “half-civilized and half-corrupted“ [p. 133] native populations of other colonies, Ross finds this alternative colonial policy unconvincing as well. While aping an uncorrupted native culture, Hanuabada is still a construct of civilization in its metropolitan size and in artificially keeping certain traditions alive.

This argumentation throws some of Ross’s convictions into sharp relief: His objection to Hanuabada pertains to the ratio of people to the space they are allotted, stressing the need of traditional local agriculture and fishing to spread in order to feed the population. When Ross disparagingly lumps Hanuabada with “unnatural creations like Berlin for Germany or New York for America”, he displays an anti-urban resentment that was shared by many reactionary political projects in Weimar Germany, geopolitics among them.1

This text is one of the most elaborate examples of Ross’s habit of openly doubting the authenticity of displays of indigenous culture (see: The business of shooting a ritual dance). Fashioning himself not as explorer, but as observer in a world connected by ever-intensifying grids of trade and transportation, Ross can afford to express skepticism  of the possibility to capture “authentic” indigenous culture. In this text, he is close to grasping how the very urge for preservation is part of the same modernity that threatens authenticity.2

Still, Ross was pragmatic enough to use footage shot in Hanuabada in a section of Achtung Australien! Achtung Asien! that is meant to represent authentically “primitive” indigenous life to cinema audiences (see: The sound of being there).

Joachim Schätz

Colin Ross. Ein papuanisches “Groß-Berlin”. In: Haha Whenua - das Land, das ich gesucht. Mit Kind und Kegel durch die Südsee. 4. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1933; 129–34, 120 verso top, 128 recto, verso, 136 recto.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: Oceania-Asia trip 1928-30

See also


1 See: David Michael Murphy. The new weapon: Geopolitics in Weimar culture and politics. In: The heroic earth. Geopolitical thought in Weimar Germany, 1918-1933. Kent (Ohio)-London: Kent State University Press; 1997; 52.

2 Cf. Philip Rosen. [Excerpt from] Once upon a time in the West. In: Change mummified. Cinema, historicity, theory. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press; 2001; 130–3.

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