Topography - "The shape of PNG"

Scholarly essay written by Roxanne Missingham, Director of Scholarly Information Services Division, ANU

Folder 6: 119 folios

Contains studio drawings and hand-finished dyelines - predominantly of the landscape: mountains, rivers, gardens, villages and more.

Folder 7: 58 folios

Contains additional field and studio drawings, dyelines and sepia proofs of miscellaneous subjects ranging from landscapes to nursing clinics.

The Cambridge Dictionary notes the meaning of the term “topography” as “the physical appearance of the natural features of an area of land, especially the shape of its surface” (1). Ancient Roman and Greek languages were the origin of the term topography. τόπος (topos) was the Greek word for “place”.

Papua New Guinea topography was an area of considerable interest in the 1960s — over 200 works published in the period refer to this subject, primarily books.

Papua New Guinea’s physical landscape is complex and tropical – with coasts, highlands, rivers and plains.

But what did Durack see of Papua New Guinea as a place when drawing the illustrations on topography?

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this section of works is the focus on people in the landscape. Approximately 85 per cent of the images situate Papua New Guinean people in the land in which they live, work and celebrate. Durack maintained the focus that she was given by Minister Barnes – to document the lives of indigenous women, with over 90 per cent of the images of people containing women.

The characteristics of their lives that she documented fell into four main categories. The majority of her illustrations, over a third of the images with women, reflect their daily life — walking, talking, in community groups and village life. These everyday moments reflect a strength of purpose and a sense of the community of women working and socially engaging with each other in villages and across the fields and roads. They picture social interactions and a connection between the women in their environments.

Representations of women working in gardens, carrying wood and with pigs are the next largest group of images (around 28 per cent). Women’s major contribution to village economies through agriculture, primarily gardening, has been well documented (2). Village economies depended upon this productivity from the work of women to a considerable degree. The work was, for the most part, done by women in small groups, sharing tales and stories. Durack captures the collaborative community spirit, with a hint of stoicism, through rain and sunshine.

Next most represented are girls and women interacting with institutions (at around 25 per cent of the images of women in landscapes in this section) – schools (government and non-government), clinics, hospitals or churches. In these images we get a sense of the activity of those engaging with these institutions, as opposed to the detailed portraits in the sections on nursing and teachers. The landscape comprises buildings and infrastructure such as roads. The images are set within a period where there had been a considerable increase in schools (3) so many buildings were quite new, and the emphasis on primary education was being supplemented by an increasing emphasis on secondary education.

The fourth area situates women in markets, engaged in economic activity but set in a highly social context. The sense of people coming together, sharing stores and celebrations as well as the fruits of their labour is evident.

Overall the image of women is highly associated with activity – the women are equipped with their shovels and walking or working across the landscape with purpose. Her images display freshness and a focus on the day-to-day lives of women in a rich diverse landscape.

So what of the landscape itself? This was a time when many scientists were visiting Papua New Guinea to study the rich biodiversity of the country. Nancy Burbidge, Richard Schodde and many others made the journey from Australia to remote parts and were thrilled by the flora and fauna they discovered.

What were they so fascinated by? Papua New Guinea is diverse and truly vast. With approximately 462,800 square kilometres, a coastline of 5,152 kilometres and around 600 islands — the environment is very different to that of other countries. Situated between two tectonic plates, it forms part of the so-called "Ring of Fire" around the edge of the Pacific, replete with recent earth (compared to Australia) movements and volcanic activity. (4, 5)

Stewart and Strathern note: “The sense of place and embeddedness within local, mythical, and ritual landscapes is important.” (6) They posit that understanding landscape is essential to understanding the lives of people, and as a people, the nature of their self-concept. Noting that people change the landscape, for example through agriculture and mining, the relationships is formed and reformed by communities as they reshape their world, while bringing forward the memories of past landscapes.

Landscape moulds around the people who inhabit it. Within this landscape are the physical forms – the mountains, rivers, dales, the flora and fauna (notable rich and exotic bird life in Papua New Guinea) and the weather creates a special dimension.

Durack captures much of these influences on Papua New Guinea as place, from the mythological shapes of the Sepik River to the teeming rain, rich tropical forests and Birds of Paradise. The masks bring a sense of living mythologies that celebrate and incorporate elements from the landscape – the feathers, meandering patterns and the very nature of use of timber.

Her travels did not take her to mining areas, although these would have provided further insights into people effect on the landscape (7). The visual narrative contains echoes of roads and rivers as stylised elements of Papua New Guinea identify. The twisting within a framed landscape has echoes of Australian aboriginality, an area of great interest for Durack who, of course, later was exposed as the supposed Aboriginal artist Eddie Burrup. The importance of routes connecting areas in the landscape has been seen as an important lens to review the nature of spirts and culture (8). Emplacement of people within landscapes in Papua New Guinea has many myths and legends related to landscape (9) with these images suggesting both a deep spiritual element in the physical landscape and a relationship women.

How does gender feature in this analysis of landscape of people? Some, arguably most, have considered terrain as it affects and is amended by all people, regardless of gender (10). Others use gender as a means of unravelling complexities that can be seen in Papua New Guinea society and history. Dickson-Waiko (11) suggests that towns and cities in Papua New Guinea are highly masculinised spaces, antithetical to women and thus a discouragement to women participating in public spaces and achieving what we would see as their democratic rights. The images from Durack suggest women working primarily with each other in more rural landscapes, with only those in formal roles in institutions (nursing, teaching) represented in the larger towns and cities. It confirms a gendered space analysis of Papua New Guinea before independence. This provides a useful insights, particularly given the lack of reliable statistical demographic data for the period.

Further, the villages themselves have a political aspect that can be interpreted in relation to gender. Dickerson-Putman notes that in the eastern highlands villages were formed “for the convenience of government and missionaries.” (12) She argues that the annual cycle, particularly in relation to economic activity, were imposed on by Australian policies in a way that benefited males as a group (p 335). Thus women were disenfranchised by a combination of natural environment and political decisions.

Other researchers have provided insights to the cosmology and spatiotemporally and gender. Silverman’s (13) study of tribes along the Sepik River finds a distinctly patrician assignment of ancestor heroes and totemic names. The ritualised power through oration is emphasised by symbols including stools. He suggests the “regionally constituted images of reproduction, gender and the body as symbols of community and cosmology.”

This provides a contextualisation of Durack’s illustrations, suggesting that the relationships between gendered roles she portrayed in the landscape and the ideological and cosmological nature of relationships between people in the region.

Finally it is worth noting that there are a wealth of Australian women’s stories from this period that have been published, with some including of the deep relationship between gender and the landscape. Nelson (14) draws a critical eye over these stories, noting the importance of a gender lens:

When Chilla Bulbeck, Jan Roberts and Stephanie Lloyd and others put together their reminiscences of Australian women and children in Papua New Guinea, they could reasonably claim that the histories then published were histories of events in which men dominated—often apparently events in which only men were involved. Bulbeck went on to say that ‘women’s stories are contained in a handful of white women’s memoirs and the ephemera of mission booklets’.] That seemed reasonable at the time; but women have been quick to exploit the ease of home publishing and recently more have had their experiences published commercially. Women live longer and as widows they may have the chance and feel an obligation to record their husbands’, as well as their own, lives.

Interpreting the Durack drawings in relation to the work of researchers into Papua New Guinea identity and landscape provide an opportunity for rich reflections. The ANU Library hopes that it will support further research across the globe.


(1) Cambridge University Press. 2016. “Definition of topography.” Cambridge Dictionary.

(2) Brouwer, Elizabeth C., Harris, Bruce M. and Tanaka, Sonomi (eds). 1998. Gender analysis in Papua New Guinea. Washington, D.C: World Bank.

(3) Maclaine, A. G. 1968. “Native education in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.” Australian Journal of Social Issues, 3(3): 25-35.

(4) Embassy of Papua New Guinea to the Americas. 2004. Topographical and Geological Features. Washington, DC: The Embassy.

(5) Hope, Geoffrey, and Haberle, Simon. 2005. “The history of the human landscapes of New Guinea.” In Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples edited by Andrew Pawley et al, 341-554. Pacific Linguistics. Canberra: ANU.

(6) Stewart, Pamela J. and Strathern, Andrew. 2003. Landscape, Memory and History. London: Pluto Press. p.3.

(7) Stewart, P.J. and Strathern, A.J. 2002. Remaking the World: Myth, Mining, and Ritual. Change Among the Duna of Papua New Guinea. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

(8) O’Hanlon, Michael, and Frankland, Linda. 2003. “Co-present landscapes. Routes and rootedness as sources of identity in highlands New Guinea.” In Landscape, Memory and History edited byPamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, 166-188. London: Pluto Press.

(9) Rumsey, Alan and Weiner, James (eds). 2001. Emplaced myth: space, narrative, and knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

(10) Hirsch, Eric. 2006. “Landscape, Myth and Time.” Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2): 151–165.

(11) Dickson-Waiko, Anne. 2010. “Finding Women in Colonial Papua: Gender Race, and Sex in Papua New Guinea History.” South Pacific Journal of Philosophy and Culture, 10: 11-17.

(12) Dickerson-Putman, Jeanette. 1990. Finding a road in the modern world: the differential effects of culture change and development on the men and women of an Eastern Highlands Papua New Guinean community. PhD Thesis. Bryn Mawr College 1986. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms. p 135.

(13) Silverman, Eric Kline. 1996. “The Gender of the Cosmos: Totemism, Society and Embodiment in the Sepik River.” Oceania, 67(1): 30-49.

(14) Nelson, Hank. 2008. Lives Told: Australians in Papua and New Guinea. In Telling Pacific lives : prisms of process edited by Vicki Luker and Brij V Lal. Canberra, ACT: ANU Press. p. 255.