Art as survival, David Eggleton

Pacific Art Niu Sila: the Pacific Dimension of Contemporary New Zealand Arts 
ed Sean Mallon and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira
Te Papa Press,$49.95,
ISBN 0909010838

Robert Louis Stevenson, writing about Samoan culture over a century ago, expressed it thus:

No occasion is too small for the poets and musicians; a death, a visit, the day’s news, the day’s pleasantry will be set to rhyme and harmony. Even half-grown girls, the occasion arising, fashion words and train choruses of children for its celebration.


The continuity of such celebration in today’s mix-and-match era of international eclecticism is the central concern of Pacific Art Niu Sila.

Part of Te Papa Press’s programmatic acknowledgement of cultural diversity in Aotearoa-New Zealand, Pacific Art Niu Sila is essentially a bundle of some 14 essays, each by a different commentator, and each illustrated with selected colour photographs. “Niu Sila” is a transliteration of “New Zealand” and indicates that the book deals with the complexities of the viewpoints of the so-called “other”. Here, then, is an overview of the strategies of local contemporary Polynesian artists.

According to national census figures, more than 200,000 people have registered as Pacific Islanders, and for them, as leading New Zealand/Pacific Island artist Fatu Feu’u puts it: “Part of our survival is doing our art. If we don’t then we are lost in another country without an identity.” It might be argued that in this postcolonial moment, when global currents swirl with migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, and all imperialism is considered morally bankrupt, no-one now feels fully at home anywhere, but Pacific Art Niu Sila goes some way towards exploring this postmodern dilemma too: showing how some artists construct smooth, frictionless, pop-cultural formulations, using iconic Pacific motifs – the timeless shapes of flowers and shells; oceanic rhythms and melodies; the cosmic symbolism of dance.

The introduction instances the recent overseas success of, amongst others, playwrights Oscar Kightly and Toa Fraser, musicians Te Vaka and Pauly Fuemana, as well as the dance troupe Mau, and artists John Pule and Lily Laita, and sees this as a prelude to even more international recognition, while also suggesting “there is a sense in which most New Zealanders are still not quite comfortable with images and forms we recognise as being of the Pacific, as also being grounded … in the socio-cultural milieu of this place.” This sweeping generalisation is not explained or qualified but serves to suggest the book has an aggressive, territorial agenda. However, the essayists themselves are less eager to antagonise the nebulous body addressed as “most New Zealanders” and concentrate instead on assessing how actual practitioners negotiate notions of belonging and making and remaking.

The problematic categories of “traditional”, “modern”, “contemporary”, “authentic” and “inauthentic” in institutional, and even general broad cultural terms, can be a way of controlling or stereotyping what is and is not “Pacific art”, though in our relativist era such categories more often provide rewarding juxtapositions, sparking energetic, hybrid, mutant and even reflexively self-critical forms, such as those of comic cabaret duo The Brownies and the theatrical troupe The Naked Samoans.

Nowadays communities are generally polarised between “liberal” and “conservative”, and Pacific Island communities reflect this trend, being often divided over what should be considered legitimate art forms: two current areas of contention are the admission of new dance moves by young dance groups into the traditional dance competitions of the Auckland secondary schools event, Polyfest, and the use of new technologies and practices in traditional tattooing.

Other arts and craft forms are grappling with change too: the labour-intensive, colourful quilting work associated with the Cook Island and known as tivaevae is having difficulty attracting young people to maintain the tradition; while traditional Tongan tapa cloth, made from bark and used in a wide range of ceremonies, has been supplanted in many instances by ngatu pepa – a tapa cloth substitute made from white polyester on which designs are stencilled, painted or glued.

Lalaga – or weaving – once exclusively done with organic materials such as palm leaves, now makes extensive use of bright, artificially-coloured plastics (recycling packing strips and other cast-offs, such as bread bags) to create baskets and hats.

But if Pacific art navigates its way today by testing traditions and making waves, it hasn’t forgotten that the coordinates originate in the history and heritage of the islands of Polynesia. The Polynesians who flocked in from their crowded, impoverished homelands in the 1950s, 60s and 70s came in search of a better way of life, and their stories were made into literature by writers such as Albert Wendt, and later John Pule and Sia Figiel. Along with poets like Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, they helped create a new literature dealing with migration, displacement, and then self-creation in a new land. The themes of their stories – Albert Wendt’s especially – were picked up in a series of movies: Sons for the Return Home (1979), The Silent One (1983) and Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1989).

It was in the late 1980s and 90s, though, that Pacific art consolidated into a comprehensive pan-Polynesian cultural front, which has both invigorated New Zealand society and been invigorated by it. Pacific Art Niu Sila, while being an account of developments in communal art forms is also a glad-handing roll-call of the prominent and the promising. Essay after essay swirls with emotional uplift of a relentless positivity. (Most of the contributors are employees of institutions with a special interest: academics and museum curators.)

What is clear is that the best individual artists are coming up with extraordinary artworks and concepts which get their energy across by establishing a dynamic nexus of relationships where identity and authenticity are submitted to irony, parody, and subversion. These artists interrogate ideal and received representations. They frame and reframe cultural attitudes from a multiplicity of angles.

John Pule, for example, revisits first encounters to tell the other side of the Pacific story, and renegotiates notions of “primitive” or “savage” art. Film-maker Sima Urale quizzes the dusky hula maiden motif in her documentary Velvet Dreams. Painter Anderson Leleisi’uso destabilises the bright, tourist-brochure-colours of a sickly-sweet Tropicana by giving them a political context. Photographer Greg Semu investigates and subverts Christian iconography. Japanese-Samoan clothing designer Shigeyuki Kihara takes racist slogans and multinational brand names and combines them into jokey T-shirt slogans. Michel Tuffery constructs colourful mechanised sea creatures – turtles, fish, crabs – out of recycled tin cans to highlight unequal economic relationships across the Pacific. Characteristically, all these artists are powerful visualisers.

In the book’s final chapter, Samoan architect Albert Refiti articulates a Polynesian aesthetic based on traditional metaphysics, and illustrates this with reference to several buildings. These include: a small fale or hut sited as a folly on the Auckland property of brewery magnate Sir Henry Kelliher; the whale-like bulk of the Free Weslyan Church of Tonga in Mangere; and the interior of the Kermadec Restaurant in downtown Auckland. In the striking interior of the Kermadec Restaurant, designed by Noel Lane, the spatial experience is energised by billowing tapa-cloth motifs created by John Pule and Sofia Tekela-Smith. These psychic sail-cloths for star-waka seem to billow as if setting sail for the future. They seem to billow as if not merely reflecting Auckland as the city of sails and banners, but also to resolving, if only for a moment, the question of New Zealand’s place in the South Pacific. Pacificness here is a tangible relationship: an exchange of gifts.


David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and reviewer.


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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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