On May 8, a gentle but steady indigenous voice gave life to a collection of "menginpeh," long tucked away in storage in MARKK, the Museum am Rothenbaum World Cultures and Arts in Hamburg, Germany.
Translated to English, menginpeh is the result of one's work. This handiwork, once filled with life by the hands of our ancestors, was traded, gifted or sometimes forcefully taken by foreigners as they came through our islands. More than 100 years after this colonial exchange in the Pacific in the early 1900s, a new decolonizing exchange is taking place.
Micronesian scholar and poet Emelihter Kihleng is undertaking the scholarly exploration and researched-based interpretation of some forms of menginpeh, as well as reexamining the photographic portraits taken of Pohnpeians by Paul Hambruch, a German ethnographer. She recently presented "Kilel oh kapwat: Revisualizing Hambruch's Photographic Portraits," the first of a series of lectures on the Oceania collections at the MARKK.
Emelihter, proud daughter of Pohnpei to Simion and Kimberlee Kihleng, has recently been selected as the first curatorial fellow from the Pacific to work with the curatorial team at the MARKK on its Oceania collections, particularly materials from the Federated States of Micronesia. Her research focuses on approximately 80-plus photographic portraits of Pohnpeian men and women taken by ethnographer Paul Hambruch during the Hamburg South Seas Expedition of 1910, as well as the forms of jewelry and personal adornment worn by these men and women when photographed. Given her doctoral research, Emelihter also is very interested in the "menginpehn lien" Pohnpei in the collection, especially "dohr" – elaborately designed, loom-woven banana fiber sashes made by women and worn by male chiefs.
MARKK, one of the premier ethnographic museums in Germany, is in the course of a major repositioning and decolonization process that includes a renovation of the museum building, the new conceptualization of the permanent display and a reconfiguration of the program. A main component of this process is the curatorial fellowship, which is "designed for international emerging scholars, preferably originating in and/or descending from the research area in question, to study a collection of the prominent Oceania holdings of the Museum am Rothenbaum."
Embarking on this retrospective journey to recreate an indigenous space for these precious materials to occupy, Emelihter's research and work in the Pacific, as well as her birthright, are her most valuable tools. She holds a Ph.D. in Va'aomanū Pasifika, Pacific studies from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand; a master of arts in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; and a bachelor's with highest honors in English also from UH at Mānoa.
Emelihter has worked as an interim curator for Pacific cultures at the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and taught at UH, University of Guam and the College of Micronesia FSM. Her first collection of poetry, "My Urohs," was published by Kahuaomānoa Press in 2008. Her work also has appeared in other national and international literary journals and anthologies.
In fall 2015, Emelihter was the distinguished writer in residence in the English Department at UH. More recently, she served as the cultural anthropologist for the Pohnpei Historic Preservation Program in Pohnpei. She can now add to her long list of accomplishments the co-editorship of the first anthology of indigenous Micronesian writing, "Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia," which was published by the UH Press this summer. The completion of this anthology brings my relationship with Emelihter full circle. With her encouragement and support, I became involved in a historic literary achievement for Micronesia.
I had the honor of having her as my English instructor at UOG in 2009. I remember wondering who this woman was, walking around campus in her "urohs" – Pohnpeian appliqued and machine-embroidered skirts. While I always loved wearing clothes customary to the Freely Associated States in Micronesia, early experiences had convinced me that they did not belong in public spaces on Guam, specifically school and work settings. As an instructor, mentor and friend, Emelihter encouraged me to be more comfortable wearing my heritage – to blossom like the flowers stitched onto urohs en Pohnpei when celebrating first birthdays or grace sacred spaces in mumus when paying respect to your elders. These pieces of culture must be worn as a sash, rather than a shield.
I was happy to realize that wearing your heritage was something to embrace and share with the world. It's also something we have to respect and support.
In her class, I was exposed to other beautiful aspects of Pacific culture from the region, which once seemed foreign to me even though we share the same vast ocean. Since then, I became more conscious of who I was in relation to the region I call home and who I aspire to be in the world we live in.
She has taught me that culture isn't just something you wear, eat or speak, but live.
I offer warm and sincere congratulations to Emelihter for her exemplary work, which is being recognized at regional and international levels. While she has many distinguished achievements in her work in the Pacific, and now in Europe, Emelihter remains grounded and humble.
Emelihter channels what has been into what can be, by creatively documenting the rich oral traditions and material culture of our islands for far-reaching audiences. Her creative writing fuses beauty and humor into important and often contested issues in the Pacific. Emelihter's work also allows Pacific islanders in the 21st century to reexamine ourselves as masters, or "pwo," of our own journeys, navigating our pasts in order to shape our futures.
I'd like to share one of her newest poems, inspired by her research on MARKK's Oceania collection, that weaves the intricate bond between indigenous people and menginpeh and explore the creative process in reclaiming narratives and indigenizing spaces.
Padil o (the Paddle)
By Emelihter Kihleng
first time at Fischbek
Jeanette and I comb through the aisles
packed and piled high with objects
precious, rare, many
horded, stolen, purchased
gifted even ... lonely
oh so very lonely
isolated, surrounded only by dust
other lonely canoes, bowls, baskets
spears, more spears, fish hooks
missing the caress of Island hands
some in crates
burned in the fire
most MIA (Missing In Action)
we look through drawers
Tapakiste 1 and 2
Kleidmatte für Männer from Fais
Kleidmatte from Truk
Kleidmatte für Frauen from Santa Cruz
we look at the Regals
I see your nting
recognize your designs
we are kin
you without a number
like the Lien Rohnkitti without a name
you called my name
and led me to yours, a title
Soumadau en Sapwalap
your nting carved into black painted
whitened with lime
dated Mei 1910
when you arrived at this museum
you had a fellow padil, now lost
you must have been in mourning for years
did you smell me coming?
ready to pick you up
and dance with you again.
Details of her first presentation on May 8, translated from German to English, can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/832658950431634/
Nedine Songeni is a daughter of Chuuk, rooted in Micronesia and resides in Yigo.