A visual storyteller; NGAIIRE’s aesthetic choices drive the messages sown through her music.
From appearing bare of her usual mane on the cover of her album 2016 Blastoma – an ode to conquering the cancer she battled as a child – to the elaborate costumes she wears on stage; the Papua New Guinean artist melds music and art through every facet of her work.
“I’ve realised that I can control how people ingest information about me,” says NGAIIRE when considering the importance of appearances. “We all have the power to control people’s perceptions, whether that’s truths or non-truths. Everyone’s doing it via social media.”
That’s not to say that NGAIIRE is propelling a false image or seeking to curate a filtered persona. Instead, she is honing the power of the ocular as a vehicle for her storytelling.
Hard at work on her third album, NGAIIRE says the forthcoming record will be “an aesthetic celebration of who I am and what my culture means to me”.
“I don’t kind of fit into what’s commercially black, if that makes sense,” she says. “You know, there are certain black cultures that are a lot more marketable than the culture that I come from, so that’s been a hindrance throughout my whole career.”
NGAIIRE spent the early years of her career confined to Indigenous and World Music stages at festivals for that very reason. Although she spent that time fighting for a space on contemporary stages, she admits she often compromised parts of her identity in order to appear more palatable to those unwilling to take a chance on a slightly off-kilter PNG artist.
“That was young NGAIIRE,” she says. “That was NGAIIRE trying to find her space in the world and realising there wasn’t really room for me. Now I’m of the mind that nobody’s going to give me that space, so I’m going to make my own space.”
And make her own space she has. Not only will her next record celebrate her cultural heritage, NGAIIRE has been hard at work engaging Australians to reconsider their preconceptions of PNG culture. She has done so through hosting a series of events and producing mini films designed to portray an accurate look at PNG culture in order to erase harmful stereotypes.
“I can only hope that my contribution will change some aspects of people’s understanding of PNG and, hopefully, make it easier for other people who come after me,” she says.
“I think I have a responsibility, personally, to be respectful to my culture, because there’s always a fine line between that being cultural capital as opposed to it being just an educational tool,” she adds. “I mean it’s my culture, I can do whatever I want with it, but there’s always got to be that respect and that reverence for things that are sacred, as well.”
NGAIIRE’s affinity with visual storytelling means her forthcoming performance at NGV as part of the gallery’s Friday Nights program is an apt fit. Having performed in an array of experimental creative spaces, she maintains a fascination with bringing live music into art galleries.
“You’re just surrounded by so much creative juju, it’s like the perfect place to perform,” she says. “So many people have ejaculated so much of their inner musings and their spirituality and their creative juices all over the spaces around you that it’s impossible for you to not be able to channel all of that into your performance.”
NGAIIRE will return to the stage at NGV International as part of the Friday Nights program on Friday June 14. Tickets are available via the NGV website.