Independence Day event slammed for “blackface” performance

A performance at the Port Moresby headquarters of petrochemical company Exxon Mobil has sparked controversy online, after video emerged of a dancer allegedly painted brown.

The video – which has since been removed – allegedly shows a man painted and dressed in the traditional garb of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Tolai people dancing in advance of the country’s independence day celebrations.

The man reportedly performed a version of a traditional dance, while the crowd can be heard “laughing” and “cheering”, according to ABC News. It is unknown whether he is an Exxon employee.

ABC News understands the performance came as part of an “adopt an expat” event that pairs PNG and international staff, in a bid to “celebrate local culture”. However, the video drew immediate criticism online and from Papua locals after it emerged.

Members of the Tolai community told ABC News they felt the performance did not show “appropriate respect for our culture”.

“For a foreigner to just dress up, walk up and just dance somehow, without understanding the real meaning [of the ritual] — it’s offensive,” Tolai woman Janet Sios told ABC News.

Sios added that her concern centres on the performance not recognising the sanctity of the dance and costume.

The performance was branded as “blackface” online, with one Twitter user, identifying themselves as an Aboriginal Australian, describing it as “disrespectful” and “offensive”.

But the user who posted the footage responded by claiming it is not offensive to Papuans.

“As a Papua New Guinean man, it isn’t [disrespectful],” he said. “Most Papua New Guineans are quite happy sharing their culture with others. He’s not in ‘blackface’. The tolai people cover themselves in body paint from extracted from a tree. He’s represented the region rather well,” the user wrote.

In response to ABC News’ coverage of the footage, he also claimed the news outlet had placed “all brown skinned people under one umbrella” by deeming that all Papuans should be offended by it.

A former employee of Exxon Mobil told ABC News that performances like this are almost an annual occurrence.

“It happened almost every year that I worked there. They had this adopted expat day, where non-Papua New Guineas were dressed in traditional bilas (costumes),” Elvina Ogil, who reportedly worked at Exxon Mobil for four years, said.

She added that the performances were “organised by indigenous Papua New Guineans” and said she found the events “culturally insensitive” and “inappropriate”.

“It was a caricature of our culture,” she told ABC News.

Featured image source: ABC News