The Incomparable Ulli Beier

Words of ParadisePoetry of Papua New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier, 1972

When the Moon Was Big, and Other Legends from New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier, 1972

Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier, 1980

These were the best anthologies I’ve read so far for this project: more consistent in quality than Lali, more cohesive than Varua Tupu, certainly better than Raetemaot. While the writing in Voices of Independence is mostly only decent and not great, the editing is stellar. Same with When the Moon Was Big; while the editor’s hand is not obvious in the storytelling—the stories are told by children, and their voices are preserved—their smoothness and coherence, especially as compared with Custom Stories from Choiseul (same concept, different country), show that he must have helped to craft them. I also liked Words of Paradise more than many poetry collections I’ve read, though the poems contained within seem more like songs than what I understand as poetry; they are often short and repetitive, sometimes incorporating nonsense syllables as refrains. I think they might be traditional chants or songs rather than new compositions, though I can’t be sure either way, and they could also be a mix of the two.

San Francisco, 2016
Ancestor Skull from Papua New Guinea, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2016

All of these collections were edited and assembled by Ulli Beier, who also edited/ghost-wrote Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime. I was intrigued by the recurrence of Beier’s name on my list. His name popped up collections from both Papua New Guinea and Nigera. I was moved to find out more about him, and I’m so glad I did, because the guy had a fascinating life. He was born in what is now Poland (then part of Weimar Germany) in 1922. His family fled the Nazis in the 1930s, ending up in Palestine, where they were detained as enemy aliens by the British government. While so detained, Beier earned a BA from the University of London. Later he moved to London to study some more. There he married the Austrian artist Susanne Wenger and then moved to Nigeria to teach at the University of Ibadan. He became interested in Yoruba culture, got to know a bunch of people in villages and cities outside of Ibadan, and ended up founding a literary journal (Black Orpheus) devoted to publishing the work of Nigerian authors. He co-founded a writing club that counted Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka among its members. He translated several works by Nigerian authors into English. His wife, meanwhile, got tuberculosis, converted to Yoruba religion, was inducted into the priesthood of the goddess of the Osun river, changed her name to Adunni Olorisha, and founded an artist cooperative in Osogbo.

San Francisco, 2016
Ancestor Skull from Papua New Guinea, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2016

At some point in the 1960s Ulli and Susanne got divorced and he met and married another artist, Georgina Betts, who designed sets and costumes for the Duro Lapido Theater Company in Nigeria. Georgina, Susanne, and Ulli all shared a house together for a while, though I don’t know exactly who was married to whom at that point. Then, when the Biafran War broke out, Ulli found himself a refugee again. The Beiers picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea. According to the introduction to one of these collections, they traveled via Australia, taking several boats, with extended delays in various ports, with their infant child in tow (I read this when my daughter was four months old and just could. Not. Imagine). There, Beier kind of did the same thing all over again: founded a journal, taught at a university, published books and articles, and tirelessly championed the voices of local writers and artists.

Ulli and Georgina stayed in PNG for four years, then moved back to Nigeria for a while, eventually ending up in Australia, where—apart from a decade-long stint in Germany setting up an African art center at the University of Bayreuth—they lived from the mid-seventies until Ulli’s death in 2011. Over the course of his life, Beier wrote or edited dozens of books and published countless articles on everything from Australian outsider art to Yoruba beaded crowns. He continued publishing until he died, at the age of 88.

Paris, 2014
Ancestor Skull from Papua New Guinea, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2014

Because I’m lazy, this post is pretty much entirely sourced from Wikipedia, with a few additions from the intros to Beier’s books, the artists’ websites of Susanne Wenger and Georgina Beier (linked above), and Ulli’s obituaries in The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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