The Frangipani is Dead: Contemporary Pacific Art in New Zealand
“The Frangipani is Dead” is a curious phrase to use as a title for a survey of contemporary Pacific art in New Zealand. Actually, Karen Stevenson’s title is straining to be a paradox. The other half of the attention-grabbing statement should be “Long Live the Frangipani”, because that slightly shop-soiled bloom, in this jet-set age of budget tourism, neo-colonialism and globalisation, is throughout the book made to stand for the whole new-found efflorescence of Pasifika art. The problem The Frangipani is Dead demonstrates, as it attempts to at once encompass, chronicle and celebrate Polynesian contemporary art “within the broader New Zealand socio-political scene”, is that the author’s ambitions are muddled by her reliance on the distancing – and irritating – device of “academic discourse”, and by the sheer complexity of her topic: the poly-praxis and polymorphousness of contemporary Polynesian art, as it were.
Though Stevenson’s book is carefully and diligently put together, what she essentially provides, via a potted digest of selected works, selected artists and selected art activities, is less a cohesive narrative than a series of snapshots centred on a moment, specifically the late 1990s, when Pacific art – or more accurately the art of a growing population of Polynesian migrants – began to register in this country as a potent force across a whole range of cultural media, from arts and crafts to dance to television and movies.
The author is herself a new migrant. Of Tahitian heritage, Stevenson is an American-trained academic who arrived in 1995 and lectures at the University of Canterbury, and she credits the inspiration for beginning this book soon after her arrival to fellow-lecturer Jonathan Mane-Wheoki and his presentation to her of “a large box of newspaper clippings, invitations and fliers”. Beyond this, the book is also a personal act of orientation, a new map of home, one which glosses the Polynesian Panthers’ political activism and officialdom’s dawn raids on visa overstayers in the 1970s as well as the emergence of pioneering artists such as novelist Albert Wendt and the anti-nuclear rock band Herbs. Here and there are glimpses of a Marxist interpretation of colonial history, and also a triumphant recounting of Pacific Islanders, arriving almost as the Otherly, blowing down from the tropics as in some organic process, and, fresh off the boat, being granted manual worker status.
Stevenson extrapolates from this progression the beginnings of a displaced, deracinated Pasifika consciousness – a sense of alienation – that emerges to extraordinary effect in the art of the children and grandchildren of these new arrivals, and first achieves institutional recognition with the 1994 Bottled Ocean touring exhibition, featuring 23 artists and curated by Rarotongan New Zealander Jim Vivieaere. However, she doesn’t explore the questions Vivieaere deliberately raises regarding the contradictions and tensions implicit in the clash between the given stereotypes of ethnic art and the establishment of a sense of personal identity as an artist. She offers instead a glad-handing, high-fiving roll-call of the arrivistes. Perhaps such questions might have been better explored via a set of probing interviews.
All in all, the fragile frangipani is made to bear a lot of weight, and, mandala-like, serves to fill the frangipani-shaped hole in the fabric of New Zealand art, as for example in the paintings of Fatu Feu’u (whom Stevenson styles “the father of Pacific art” in New Zealand), and in the jewellery of Niki Hastings-McFall, and then in the more cryptic floral motifs of painter Graham Fletcher. The frangipani also appears in the traditional lei garland, as well as in tapa or barkcloth imagery, so this leads on to consideration of how – often with humour or irreverence – traditional craft forms have been reinvented and reinvigorated by artists ranging from Niuean craftswomen weaving coloured plastic (drinking straws, supermarket carrier bags, industrial packaging) into “polybubble lei”, to Ani O’Neill’s stuffed toy versions of priapic gods, to John Pule’s painted slithery lines – like jungle lianas – worked into neo-primitive heraldic banners unfurled on canvas painted to resemble barkcloth.
The emphasis, then, is on knowing, and know-ledgeable, art. The transfigured frangipani turns out to be a rather slippery flower, more like an underfoot banana skin, in fact, as film-maker Sima Urale turns the spotlight on kitsch exploitative paintings of “dusky maidens”, while other artists, such as the Pacific Sisters, appropriate the very same imagery. “If you’re born here, you’ve got no identity,” claims Michel Tuffery, then promptly goes on to rather brilliantly establish a hybrid identity as a “mongrel afakasi” by constructing such things as a turtle ancestor totem out of scavenged and hammered-together empty fish tins.
So Pacific artists get a lot of traction out of being contrarian, or agents provocateurs, or transgressively inventive – especially, perhaps, towards the Christian, know-your-place, working class ethos their parents learnt back in the islands – by trawling through a rich territory of oceanic archetypes and fertility symbols, museum collections and cargo cult leftovers, Hollywood movies and popular songs.
Addressing the matter of origins, some artists, such as sculptor Filipe Tohi or photographer Evotia Tamua quote and recycle communal notions as if there’s been no disruption, no real rupture, with life back home. For others, like Tuffery or Fletcher or O’Neill, identity is an empowering protagonist or a free-floating concept: we are all eclectics and mongrels now. And for still others identity is a kind of antagonist, a riddle, a philosophical position, as with self-styled “Kamoan”, the New Zealand-born Samoan painter Andy Leleisi’uao, and performance artist Shigeyuki Kihara, endlessly reworking exotic signifiers – in this case as logos on t-shirt – until the concept of “identity” begins to suggest a mask for errors of omission: claim and counter-claim resounding in a global echo-chamber.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and reviewer.