Schooltime on the Sepik: Paul Greenaway’s Korogo Project and the art of giving back

On the evening of October 19, Paul Greenaway stood at the door of his Kent Town gallery ushering in a crowd of Adelaide’s well-to-do.

More astute observers might have noticed the GAGProjects director, who has been running the local gallery for 25 years, seemed slightly on edge as he smiled and exchanged pleasantries. Guests were offered champagne, a jazz trio played, and along the far gallery wall ten donated works by artists including Michael Zavros and Abdul Abdullah were on display ahead of a charity auction that would take place that night. Art auctions for a cause are regular enough occurrences in Australia, but rarely is the cause as personal as the Korogo Project is to its founder.

“He doesn’t do anything by halves,” a friend Greenaway’s said on the night, “although sometimes you think it would be better for him personally if he did.”

Greenaway’s history with Korogo – the small village on Papa New Guinea’s Sepik river that is the beneficiary of his Korogo Project initiative – stretches back to the mid-1970s. These days, when he travels there, as he comes over the mountains and down towards the river by truck, he is greeted by the sound of a familiar drum beat, one that the local people play only for him.

“As soon as we hit the river, I hear the villagers welcoming me,” he says.

Greenaway was working on the Trobriand Islands when he first visited Korogo to learn more about Sepik art. This first trip prompted him to return in the early-1980s and stay there, on and off, for three years. During this time, he wrote a book about local wood carvings and noticed the ways in which Korogo began revealing itself in his own art practice. He ran a small school and worked as an aid post orderly, treating villagers who visited him twice a week. Busier days might involve stitching up wounds or assisting in delivering babies and before too long the villagers grew fond of him. He left after contracting a serious case of malaria that required urgent medical attention.

Over the years, Greenaway would visit Korogo regularly and observed as life there carried on much as it always had until, during trip to the village four years ago, he witnessed an alarming change.

“There was a cemetery filled with little graves – the graves of children, all under the age of three … we found out that infant mortality rates on the middle Sepik where now the highest in the world because of recent water pollution from mining. Local fish that helped keep the water clean had gone and the river was filled with introduced carp. So, because of this dirty water in the Sepik river, 250 of every 1000 children were dying of dysentery and diarrhea.”

Greenaway left determined to do something but at a loss as to what could be done.

“We were travelling home, really disturbed by what we’d seen. In Cairns Airport, I picked up a copy of Scientific American and read an article about a 2006 invention called the LifeStraw that filtered 99.9 per cent of all waterborne bacteria.”

Greenaway had found his answer and was quick to act. He joined forces with Rotary Australia World Community Service and became a Rotarian himself. In 2016, they travelled to Korogo with boxes of LifeStraws, technology that would immediately begin to shift the fate of the small village.

But for Greenaway the Korogo Project did not end there. Now that he had started there was other work to be done. The charity auction in October was to raise funds to build a high school on the Middle Sepik. Village children in PNG face many of the same barriers as Aboriginal children in remote Australia who move to cities for high school. The cultural and language barriers more often than not result in extreme loneliness and many return home without graduating. Greenaway plans to build a local Korogo high school where teenagers from surrounding villages can board during the week. Rather than catching a bus to school, children will be collected by a school canoe.

All this, Greenaway attempts to summarise in his speech to guests at the art auction. As with any swanky charity event, there is something unsettling in the disjunct between the collective wealth of the room – sipping champagne on a Friday night – and those people in a neighbouring country who have only recently had access to clean water.

All 10 artworks were sold in the auction.

gagprojects.com/index.php/aid-support-korogo-projects

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