- By Nedine Songeni
Emelihter Kihleng: Reclaiming Micronesian narratives and indigenizing spaces
On May 8, 2019, a gentle but steady indigenous voice gave life to a collection of menginpeh, long tucked away in storage in MARKK, Museum am Rothenbaum World Cultures and Arts in Hamburg, Germany. 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.
Over a hundred years after this colonial exchange in the Pacific in the early 1900s, a new decolonizing exchange is taking place. Micronesian scholar and poet Dr. Emelihter Kihleng is undertaking the scholarly exploration and research-based interpretation of some forms of menginpeh as well as reexamination of photographic portraits taken of Pohnpeians by Dr. Paul Hambruch, a German ethnographer.
Kihleng recently presented “Kilel oh kapwat: Revisualizing Hambruch’s Photographic Portraits,” the first of a series of lectures on the Oceania collections at the MARKK. Kihleng, 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 the 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, Dr. Kihleng is also 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, Kihleng’s research and work in the Pacific, as well as her birthright, are her most valuable tools. She holds a PhD in Va’aomanū Pasifika, Pacific Studies from Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand; an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; and BA with Highest Honors in English from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
Kihleng has worked as an interim curator of the Pacific cultures at the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and taught at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 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 has also appeared in other national and international literary journals and anthologies.
In Fall 2015, Kihleng was the Distinguished Writer in Residence in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. 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 has just been published by the University of Hawaiʻi Press this summer.
The completion of this anthology brings my relationship with Kihleng in full circle. With her encouragement and support, I was able to be involved in a historic literary achievement for Micronesia. I had the honor of having Dr. Kihleng as my English instructor at the University of Guam 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 in Guam, specifically school and work settings.
As an instructor, mentor and friend, Kihleng 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 not something to hide in order to fit in. Instead, it 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 Dr. Kihleng for her exemplary work, which is now being recognized at regional and international levels. While she has many distinguished achievements in her work in the Pacific and now in Europe, Kihleng remains grounded and humble. She 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. Kihleng’s work also allows Pacific Islanders in the 21st century to re-examine ourselves as masters or pwo of our own journeys, navigating our pasts in order to shape our futures.
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