A little bit of Gogodala history

The Gogodala people of the Western Province of Papua have an impressive artistic heritage. In the 1930s it all but vanished when Christian missionaries insisted that all artworks associated with the Gogodala’s Aida cult be destroyed. Unfortunately that meant pretty much all of it, and as more and more old-timers died they took with them their own memories of their traditional art forms.

When the anthropologist Tony Crawford visited Gogodala country in 1972, he found only one surviving artifact, a sacred diwaka drum. He was subsequently instrumental in encouraging a strong revival of traditional Gogodala art forms such as masks, shields and drums.

My own involvement with Tony was pretty basic. I had a small photography business in the suburb of Boroko, in Port Moresby, and I did black-and-white darkroom printing for his forthcoming book, AIDA: life and ceremony of the Gogodala (published 1981).

My collection of PNG books is small but AIDA remains my favourite, partly because of my own small contribution, partly because the late Denis Williams had a few photos in the book, but mostly because it does an outstanding job of preserving a cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.


Chief Minister Michael Somare gets a warm welcoming reception from dancers at the opening of the new Gogodala Cultural Centre.

All of that was a long time ago and much has doubtless changed in Gogodala country. No harm, though, in a brief trip down memory lane to Balimo on 29 August, 1974, and the official opening of the Gogodala Cultural Centre by the then Chief Minister of PNG, Michael Somare, M.P. In addition there are some photographs of a spectacular traditional canoe race, held at the same time.




Proceedings get under way with a gift for the country’s first indigenous leader, during the brief period of self-government before Independence. Colonial-dominated government was coming to an end and most people were optimistic about the future. Somare would go on to become Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, with a more controversial role in PNG’s political history, but these were simpler times and his visit to Balimo was one of his first official duties.




Crowds gather outside the new cultural centre while Somare poses for the obligatory photo.


The impressive interior of the huge long house and cultural centre, with Somare and an official about to start proceedings.


Crowds of predominantly women and children squeeze into every available nook to watch the opening ceremony.



Spectacular costumes for the dancing displays were an important part of the official proceedings.


This particular performer also featured in a photo by Tony Crawford used on the cover of his book, ‘AIDA: life and ceremony of the Gogodala’. He does look pretty amazing!

The Gogodala live in villages along or close to the Aramia River, in the Western Province of PNG, north of the River Fly and the regional town of Daru  They are famous for their long dugout canoes and the river plays a major part in their lives. In the seventies they numbered about 10,000 but that has since been increased to about 30,000. Canoe races have always been a part of their traditional culture and were used to settle disputes.

The two photos below capture the flat, swampy plains of Gogodala country, dotted with villages and blanketed with natural vegetation, coconut and banana plantations and vegetable gardens.




Next we have three photos showing canoeists lined up for the start of a ceremonial race. If you recognize someone, a parent or grandparent perhaps, I would be happy to include them in a caption. It’s always great to get the captions right. This is just a blog about some photos I have in my collection and I hope you enjoy looking at them. If you would like to know more about the people of the Gulf country of Papua, there is a lot of great material online that is well worth reading. The photographer for all the photos in this post was Denis Williams.







1 thought on “A little bit of Gogodala history

  1. Bula Vinaka,Currently, the Oceania Centre has been engaged in a cultural festivals mapping research for the the International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region (ICHCAP) under the auspices of UNESCO.

    As part of this research, we were hoping to use your images/videos in the publishing of the findings.

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