Beyond the tapa curtain, David Eggleton

Speaking in Colour
Sean Mallon and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira
Te Papa Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 90901044 7

The country of the tourist brochures is, as Nadine Gordimer has suggested, always someone else’s country: unreal in its airbrushed perfection; its beckoning idyll a commodified fiction. Nowhere has this been more true than in the South Pacific. Its archipelagos are the ne plus ultra of the slow-motion hibiscus pastorale, of the neo-colonial tourist as ukulele-strummer, reclining in a hammock slung between coconut palms, while the locals, designated servants, come and go, whispering not of Michelangelo, but the exotic names of tropical cocktails. The problem for the people who actually live there is defining themselves outside this Eurocentric paradigm, where they are the trinket vendors, recognised and authenticated only by having their craftwork elevated to the status of kitsch and offered for sale in airport duty-free shops.

This is part of the contested arena of representation that Speaking in Colour, along with, say, the Air New Zealand magazine Pacific Wave, the TV3 programme Skitz, and the TV1 programme Tagata Pasifika belong to. There are 175,000 New Zealanders who identify themselves as Pacific Islanders. In Speaking in Colour Te Papa collection manager Sean Mallon and Auckland Museum curator Pandora Fulimalo Pereira profile 10 New Zealand artists of Pacific Island heritage. Their collaboration functions as a form of cultural affirmation; the tone is light, upbeat and buoyant: the book is intended to be read by everybody, but especially students. However, it lacks a sense of context. Presenting everything at face value and withholding information which might distort the feel-good affirmation, it functions at best as a piece of nationalist rhetoric: inside us the alternative nation, the Great Mother – Polynesia. Lifting the prosaic text far above its forgettable status as a kind of glorified art gallery handout are the delectable illustrations. They are capable of being pored over and scrutinised, generating complex agenda which outflank the papal bull imprimatur of the Te Papa-authorised commentary. The earnest tone the book employs is a sub-category of the great New Zealand earnestness which readily attaches itself to so much of today’s artspeak of an egalitarian persuasion. This book doesn’t talk down, but it doesn’t directly engage you either; consequently its real politics remain something of a mystery, suggesting in-house intrigues.

Artist Paul Gauguin came to Polynesia in search of the Rousseauian ideal – Nature in its original primal innocence. He is symptomatic of the whole beachcomber phenomenon, of which Paul Theroux (The Happy Isles of Oceania) is, in his own misanthropic, stand-offish, yet exploitative way, merely a more recent manifestation. The title of Gauguin’s 1897 Tahitian masterpiece “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, though, as Graeme Lay, in his useful, broad overview Pacific New Zealand, also acknowledges, is asking a percipient question equally relevant for the new wave of Polynesian artists who came of age in the eighties and nineties. And, as ubiquitous Polynesia investigator and Australian academic Nicholas Thomas points out at the end of his Oceanic Art, ethnic art as expressed in contemporary Pacific art forms is not “a mystification, but the accomplishment of a moment, (in which) as one condition is expressed, others are masked or eclipsed”. The identity politics expressed by these artists, then, is multiculturalism at work, blurring the boundaries of the new world border, taking us beyond the tapa curtain.

Jim Vivieaere is of Cook Islands descent. Born and raised in New Zealand, he is preoccupied by the way institutions represent identity, and by the challenge presented to him as a Pacific Islander, growing up in New Zealand in the fifties, in the era of assimilation. Bottled Ocean, the touring group show he curated in 1994-95 was triumphant affirmation that Pacific Island modern art had indeed arrived as a vital force.

His installations and assemblages are about culture as a process of production, circulation and consumption. He playfully reveals museums as corrupt spaces, in that they can be manipulated to alter the messages their exhibits offer. His Bottled Ocean mobilised the new model army of Polynesian artists and showed them surfing the Zeitgeist together, employing magic realism (Michel Tuffery, John Pule), iconic fabulism (John Pule, Fatu Feu’u) and even a social realist subtext of making do, of getting by (Michel Tuffery, Lyle Penisula) and generally cross-fertilising influences into outcomes of hybrid brilliance, accompanied by a CD soundtrack of the ocean with its figurative benediction of sea breezes.

Vivieaere’s 1994 assemblage “Two skyrockets (one for adornment)” consisting of two decorated 44-gallon drums suspended in the air like cargo being lowered onto a wharf, or into a canoe, explored community fetishism. It made a powerful connection between yesteryear’s cargo cults – colonised subjects speckled round remote atolls and outlying islands, and today’s universal cargo culture – the commodity culture, with its built-in obsolescence, sponsored by multinationals, fuelled by the mass media, and answering to a kind of addictive need in the global village.

Vivieaere, together with John Pule (Niuean), Michel Tuffery (Samoan), Fatu Feu’u (Samoan) and Ani O’Neill (Cook Islander – though she is not represented in Speaking in Colour) are probably the key Pacific Island artists in this country. Their work is about the control of cultural capital, the reinvestment of surplus, in which metaphors of the organic are used as a form of self-definition against the dominant culture, not just post-colonial New Zealand, or nuclear-colonial France, but the neo-colonial Los Angeles-Las Vegas axis, the gargantuan Godzilla-like omnivorousness of pre-millennial Pax Americana.

Fatu Feu’u’s work (primarily paintings and lithographs) draws its metonymic power, its capacity to stand for the larger world outside the frame, and to suggest an Oceanic view which is as much proactive as it is reactive, by using simple symbols balanced against bright blocks of primary colours. For him the canoe paddle is a symbol of survival, the tuiga headpiece a symbol of authority, and the handprint a symbol of community. He makes enduring monuments out of the mandala-like form of the frangipani flower. He is a believer in “the Samoan way” (fa’asamoa) as a means of restoring wholeness – a holistic approach to life. He threads together icon shapes in a tapa-like pattern on screen-prints, postcards, shirts, carpets and ceramics, unifying the world.

John Pule who came to Auckland from a village in Niue as a child and had a lot of trouble adjusting to big city life, uses tapa-cloth-derived patterns to explore bilingualism and migration and self-creation in a new land. Tapa cloth is made by pounding inner tree-bark; the pounded sheets are laminated together with arrowroot glue and then printed with ink made from tree-bark dye, soot or red earth. It lends itself to dynamic, rhythmic patterns. Pule employs traditional iconography – the totemic shark and gecko and crisscross patterns together with a crucified Christ-figure to show Christianity as a recent overlay on profound ancestor worship and animistic beliefs. But he draws his patterns freestyle direct onto canvas using oil paint and brushes.

His appropriated tapa-cloth designs address the growing self-referentiality of symbol systems, as well as the collapse of the centre and the triumph of the marginal. His exotic content becomes a valuable commodity in a cultural system which emphasises processability. His “paintings” are stacked with potential meanings waiting to be teased out to illustrate a whole raft of possible discourses, all networking around plurality, conflict, dissonance, fragmentation, subjectivity and so on – all those modish enucleated summaries which seek to encapsulate this speed-of-light era. His Niue Island is a mythic field of vision, a soft-focus reproduction of the past which overlays the present like a psychic cartographer’s map, perpetually there, not explaining but merely providing another way of seeing, a pattern woven out of stilted (and therefore more primal, more authentic-seeming) drawings which evoke Hopi geometric patterns, Aboriginal bark paintings, prehistoric Venezuelan petroglyphs.

Michel Tuffery is also interested in tales of the islands, in genealogies, in kinship bonds and in the whole menagerie of real and fabulous beasts which populate Polynesian legends. His flowing interwoven forms are lattices and helixes hatched out of the ribbed shadows of overlapping coconut palms, out of the shape of a turtle glimpsed swimming between islands. Tuffery can draw anything, he is a highly skilled graphic artist. But this means he has to fight a tendency to be slick, facile in his dexterity. One challenge has been to take the humble corned-beef can – the Hellaby’s Pacific Corned Beef container, which is a common sight in the islands – and to relocate it to an art gallery within a new repertoire of signs. He has moulded or forged these tin cans into life-size cows and bulls, ensembles of metal which, placed in an art gallery, constitute part of a new discourse about ritual of consumption divorced from the original utilitarian one but reflecting back on it as both folk art and political commentary. Tuffery’s haptic, plastic skill – his ability to shape anew, at will – is also advertised, even as it enforces the metamorphosis.

Demonstrating calligraphic energy and attack, the artists in Speaking in Colour constitute part of a fractured storybook still under construction. They take Pacific art well beyond the decorative, touristic status of spangled flowers on lava-lavas, turning esoteric insignia, primitive signage, which once spoke of otherness and alienation into a communal display, even as shadow celebrants in showcase festivals drum on cracker-biscuit tins and hollowed-out logs. The other artists in this book, amongst them a ceramicist, a stone carver and abstract painters, echo these sentiments with emblematic seeds, gourds and fertility symbols. They also contribute to revealing how a culture’s image-making has moved on from the original intention of providing a tangible identity for a closed-off, self-contained community during a given time-span, to facing the present and the concept of modernity.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and critic.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Pacific
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