Reflecting on Ellya Alexander Tebay’s Yam Sketch – A Papuan artist Ellya Alexander Tebay has since 2017 explored the possibilities of art by drawing a sketch of sweet potato. Tebay invites the audience listening to his sketches to reflect on yam as a source of livelihood that is increasingly disappearing from the life of indigenous Papuans.

Sweet potato is a local food ingredient that is closely related to the life of indigenous Papuans. The Mee tribe calls it “note”, the Lanny tribe calls it “mbi”. However, Ellya Alexander Tebay is anxious to see that sweet potatoes are disappearing from the daily lives of Papuan people. This anxiety made Tebay try to understand and interpret sweet potatoes, as well as interpreting the big question about the sustainability of Papuan human life.

“The implementation of the sketch of a yam with a human image is an expression of anxiety [that] the yam is undergoing serious degradation. The idea came up, I started to paint about the sweet potato,” said Tebay when met in Nabire, Thursday (18/2/2021).

Tebay said that the sketch he drew was a sweet potato commonly consumed by humans. Sweet potatoes commonly found in the market, sweet potatoes sold by Papuan mothers. Sweet potatoes that along with the changing times have experienced extraordinary degradation.

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“In fact, sweet potatoes are one of the typical main foods of Papuans, in the mountains and parts of the coast. Sweet potatoes should be preserved and consumed by us,” he said.

Tebay wants the yam in his sketch to be able to evoke memories of every Papuan about the smell of sweet potatoes, and to be able to make a soft story about sweet potatoes who are experiencing an excruciating pain. “The sweet potato that I drew also conveys our complaints. I don’t see sweet potatoes as [just food] to be consumed. Sweet potatoes can convey a message, because sweet potatoes are a symbol of our culture,” he said.

The sweet potato in one of Tebay’s sketches has a face, nose, mouth, and eyes that stare gently. In another sketch, the sweet potato that Tebay drew resembles a body wrapped and entangled, shackled. “Yam is talking to humans that ‘yam is sick’. The body is suffering. It is the same with the fact of the suffering of Papuan people,” said Tebay.

Tebay is indeed anxious to see Papuans increasingly leaving sweet potatoes out of their daily menu. Tebay even found that some local yam varieties had disappeared from the market.

Indonesian food endurance policy is indeed the result of a centralized policy, making rice the main food ingredient, marginalizing other foodstuffs. The problem is plural, and it has long been criticized by scientists. Different from the experts, Tebay found that the fate of sweet potatoes was no different from the fate of indigenous Papuans, who he said were both ignored.

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“We don’t eat it anymore. The fate of sweet potatoes today is the same as that of the Papuans themselves. Sweet potatoes and humans [Papua] are both neglected,” he said.

For him, if sweet potatoe was a human being, it would talk about why the native Papuans had left him. Yam will ask why it is not cared for, not protected, not cared for even allowed to die.

“I highlighted yams, because I wanted to have a discourse that sweet potatoes can also speak. What is experienced by sweet potatoes, that’s what we humans have to feel and talk about together. It is possible that we, native Papuans, will become foreigners in our own country. Or will we change nature, because our consumption is different?” Tebay asked.

Papuan local food observer, known as the Papua Jungle Chief, Charles Toto, stated that the Papua Provincial Food and Agriculture Service must play a role in protecting local sweet potato varieties and other local foods. “If Papuan cassava varieties or other local foods are lost, they must be protected together quickly. If it is ignored, it will be lost in memory,” said Charles.

Charles said that the changing consumption patterns of indigenous Papuans were not the only cause of the disappearance of local food varieties such as sweet potatoes. Charles said tha the massive logging also reduces biodiversity in Papua, and has risks for destroying a number of local food varieties. “We also need to protect and preserve nature, so that local food is protected and local food is preserved,” he said.(*) 

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