Taloi Havini decided to become an artist when she was in high school in Sydney. The youngest of four children, her family had fled Bougainville’s civil war for a new life in Australia in 1990, the year she turned nine. Her father, Moses Havini, believed in education. His own university graduation had propelled him into his leadership role in the ongoing struggle for his homeland’s autonomy and secession from Papua New Guinea.
“You have to go to university,” Moses told his daughter, having been given the same advice by his father, the late paramount chief of the Naboin clan on Bougainville’s Buka island. “But then, you have to come home and develop your own culture. You have to learn all the white man’s knowledge but come home and better your own people.”
None of Havini’s three siblings, all older brothers, got to university, so Taloi Havini felt the weight of expectation. “I was like, ‘Oh jeez’,” she recalls. “So I said to mum: ‘Is art school considered university?’”
Her Australian-born mother, Marilyn Havini (nee Miller), a painter, replied with an unequivocal ‘yes’: art school qualifies as university. Marilyn had met Moses Havini in Melbourne in 1971 and travelled to Buka to marry him the same year; she is famous for having won a competition to design a Bougainville flag.
Taloi went on to gain her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the Canberra School of Art at the Australian National University. Today, the Havinis’ youngest child works with video, photography, mixed-media installations and sculpture, immersing audiences in contested sites and histories while exploring locations fraught with political, environmental and social disasters.
She creates in a studio upstairs at Artspace in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, and travels back to Bougainville each year, helping bring together community projects, including the Women’s Wealth project exhibition – ‘wealth’ in the sense of knowledge and traditional skill rather than materialistic wealth – which was launched on Buka in 2017.
At 38, Taloi Havini is about to have her first solo exhibition, Reclamation, at Artspace during the Sydney Festival in January. The show will include her 2018 iteration of her ongoing Habitat series. This latest four-channel video installation crisscrosses decades of footage in various formats in just under 10 minutes, including film of women protesting mining in Bougainville juxtaposed with an Australian mining company’s own triumphal film about its ‘great adventure’ in the region.
Then, in February, Havini will travel to Bangladesh for the Dhaka Art Summit, where she will use traditional weaving techniques from her community to build a huge shelter – an inviting meeting place – at the centre of the summit. She has lined up collaborators to harvest cane and bamboo and gather other building materials.
The peace that art lovers will find there is a long way from the deadly conflict of Taloi Havini’s childhood. She was born in 1981 in Arawa, but the town was largely destroyed in the bloody conflict between 1988 to 1998. Up to 20,000 people lost their lives during the Bougainville civil war, about 10 per cent of the population at the time, and there were reports of massacres, rapes and torture.
“My father was working for the provincial government [as the assembly’s speaker] and he wanted Bougainville to have its own government. He loved this idea of living in your traditional lands and Bougainvilleans also having a transparent government. But because the government wanted independence from Papua New Guinea, he was questioned by PNG about his so-called loyalty …”
“My father really believed in independence, and my mother also, by designing this flag. So the Bougainville flag today is designed by an Australian woman.” Marilyn Havini’s winning entry, created after consulting clan leaders across the region, was first raised in Bougainville in September 1975 as part of a proclaimed Universal Declaration of Independence, and is still used today.
“By the time the war came, my father had a mark on his head; the Papua New Guinea defence force wanted to kill him. He wasn’t safe. He either had to flee into the jungle or flee from Bougainville.
“There was not a single other Australian left, and people were telling my mother: ‘You have to go; you’ll die if you stay here’.
“It was my grandmother here in Sydney who called my father and begged them, ‘Please come’.”
In 2005, Moses and Marilyn moved back to Buka, and Moses became a mentor to the Autonomous Bougainville Government as director of parliamentary committees. In 2013, having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he returned to Sydney for treatment, and died in 2015.
At the time of this interview, Taloi Havini was juggling making art, creating a book that combines images of the art with essays to plug gaps in Australia’s knowledge, and working on a trip to Bougainville for the independence referendum to be held in November-December. Successful or not, she says, “I wouldn’t miss the vote for the world.”