Pacific artists find home in new exhibition
Auckland Art Gallery
July 7 - October 22
A major group exhibition of contemporary Pacific art went on show at the Auckland Art Gallery last week. Home AKL features work by more than 20 artists covering three generations whose heritage derives from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.
The concept of home for many New Zealanders is an ambivalent one, with 25% of the population having been born overseas and probably close to half having a strong connection with some other country.
For Pacific Islanders, the concept is probably even more difficult ,with easy travel between the Islands and New Zealand meaning there are two “homes” to consider.
The work in Home AKL reflects a number of notions of home and culture, as well as the problems and issuers of Pacific Islanders who hold strongly to their culture and can feel alienated and different, or experience a surreal double life.
Moving from a hierarchical village culture with traditional values to a more democratic and liberal environment with different means of cultural expression results in a range of responses.
This edgy dilemma is simply conveyed in a video by Jeremy Leatinu’u in which he walks along the centre line of a suburban street seeming to court danger as the traffic carefully drives around him.
Andy Leleisi’uao also looks at this issue with his anguished Waking Up To My Polynesian Spine from 1998 and his more reflective Matasio Heads of 2009 with the Janus-like two-headed figure confronting angels and demons.
While most of the works in the exhibition are fairly recent, there are a couple which show the evolution of Pacific art in New Zealand with works by Teuana Tibbo and Paul Tangata from the 1960s and 70s. Tibbo’s depiction of her early life in Samoa were naive impressionist works, while the abstract works of Paul Tangata conjure up the intensity of Pacific light and colour.
Also as a reference point is a large Tongan tapa cloth which is the most traditional of works in the show and the most abstract. The major part of the work is an expanse of black which has all the intensity of a Mark Rothko colour field painting and provides the infinite depth of a cultural history.
The links with abstract art can also be seen in the traditional offerings by Joana Monolagi, Lakiloko Keakea and Foufili Halagigie with their circular works of traditional and modern materials. While celebrating Island life and culture, they also have the appearance of meditative abstract tondos.
Ani O’Neill’s provides a witty reflection on issues around the history and perception of sexuality and the Pacific with her Tangaroa, a large stuffed doll/ fetish with a giant penis.
John Pule’s Motu Keheaga uses his well-known format, a cross between comic strip and traditional Niuean hiapo, to link the history and culture of Niue and New Zealand with traditional and invented images and an Auckland skyline.
Two of Graham Fletcher’s Lounge Room Tribalism paintings are included in the show. These depict modernist house interiors, with tribal art adorning the space, and raise the issue about whether indigenous artifacts are seen as artworks in their own right or as exotic pieces of design.
Several artists use photography to reflect on Pacific lives in New Zealand. Greg Semu’s images of his tattooed torso and legs are both personal portraits as well as ethnographic recording, while the trendy photographs of Shigeyuki Khara originally produced as a fashion photo shoot are tantalising faux cultural images.
The exhibition provides an excellent overview of contemporary Pacific art but also are instructive and revealing about how Pacific cultures and the wider culture operate separately while also intersecting and blending, borrowing and sharing imagery, styles and ideas.