The Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture

In 1996, the University of the South Pacific finally acted on a decision made by its Council in 1992 to establish an arts and culture program. A centre for Pacific arts and culture was to start operation in 1997. As I was intimately involved in the planning for this centre, which deals directly with the issue of culture and identity, I became aware of two things. First, this new unit provides a rare opportunity for some of us at the university to realise the dreams that we have had for many years. We have talked and written about our ideas and hopes, but only now have we been presented with an opportunity to transform them into reality. Second, if we were not careful, the programs being conceived for the centre would become a loose collection of odds and ends that would merely reflect the diversity of our cultures.

I began searching for a theme or a central concept on which to hang the programs of the centre. I toyed with the idea of Our Sea of Islands that I had propounded a few years previously, but felt uneasy about it because I did not wish to appear to be riding a hobby horse. It is bad manners in many Oceanic societies to appear to push things for yourself, but it is a forgivable sin if someone else accidentally does it for you. So I kept the idea at the back of my mind and while in this condition, I came across the following passage in an article written by Sylvia Earle for the October 28 issue of Time.

The sea shapes the character of this planet, governs weather and climate, stabilises moisture that falls back on the land, replenishing Earth’s fresh water to rivers, lakes, streams—and us. Every breath we take is possible because of the life-filled life-giving sea; oxygen is generated there, carbon dioxide absorbed. Both in terms of the sheer mass of living things and genetic diversity, that’s where the action is. Rain forests and other terrestrial systems are important too, of course, but without the living ocean there would be no life on land. Most of Earth’s living space, the biosphere, is ocean—about 97 per cent. And not so coincidentally 97 per cent of Earth’s water is Ocean. (1996:52)

After I read Earle’s account, it became clear that the ocean, and our historical relationships with it, would be the core theme for the Centre. At about the same time, our journalism students produced the first issue of their newspaper, WANSOLWARA, a pidgin word which they translated as ‘one ocean—one people’. Things started to fall into place, and we were able to persuade the university to call the new unit the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture.