After a recent meeting with an Australian curator, I am re-establishing or rather remembering what my purpose and drive is as a Pacific artist and curator. In that particularly unfruitful meeting, I became very aware of the difference between curating Pacific art to a global audience, and curating Pacific art reflecting on my role and responsibility in moving Pacific art and Pacific people into the future.
It is my purpose and drive to give contemporary Pacific art the space and importance to be acknowledged as contemporary reinventions of what our heritage artforms represent. Our canoes, oratory, adornment, ceremonial objects, performance, architecture (to name a few) symbolised our identity, where and what we were: what we wanted for our future generations to know about us. Our contemporary arts, whether island based, or within the diaspora, also play this role, representing who we are, and where we are today. However, in this age of globalisation, we are no longer internalising our expressions of identity within ourselves and our cultural communities. The contemporary art gallery has become a popular avenue for depicting contemporary Pacific experience in a variety of new media.Whilst the gallery is an art specific space, it also comes with a different set of viewing protocols, histories and audiences. Contemporary Pacific art in this space can compromise the underlying socio-political function and purpose of the work in many ways.
In the Pacific, the gallery does not confine or define contemporary Pacific art. It is found in many places, made and defined by Pacific people and Pacific realities. Art’s creation beyond specific objects of ceremony, often has commercial value and is produced and adapted for economic gain. In the Suva Flea Market, technicolour dyed salusalu (highly decorative garlands made from hibiscus fibre) and woven fans made up of illuminous synthetic wool are displays of contemporary Pacific art, not only in their making, but also in their installation. The salusalu uses a non-traditional contemporary pallette, but is still used in a traditional context, as a marker of a celebrated person and occassion. The fan also keeps its original function and purpose, but it too has been informed by contemporary times, a globalised market and reflects certain economic shifts in terms of the availability and manufacture of traditional materials. These two examples of contemporary Pacific art are aimed at, but not limited to, a Fijian and pan-Pacific audience. They speak of the cultural heritage that has informed their making, of contemporary times and creative and/or neccessary adaptation.
For contemporary Pacific art to be validated, its audience is part of its reading, its understanding and therefore it’s purpose and function. Like any artwork, there are two stages for art to ‘be art': one half is the artist’s presentation of a piece of artwork, the other half is the viewer reading and engaging with this artwork, so for Pacific art to ‘be’ Pacific art, it needs to be accessed, read and validated by a Pacific audience.
For example, New Zealand based contemporary Tongan painter, Samiu Napa’a, is currently developing work for an exhibition reflecting on the first anniversary of the death of HM Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. Via a series of self-portraits, the Tongan-born artist is reflecting on the state of Tonga. In his painting, “A Recue Piece” (2007), a facial self-portrait in textured oil paints is engulfed in upward roaring multi-tonal flames. In the lower half of the painting, a form representational of a human heart is purple and exposed. In between the heart and portrait is a space of emptiness, an ocean, dividing and connecting the face/head and the disembodied heart, also engulfed in flames, which emanate from it. Fires that quickly engulfed Nuku’alofa in the riots of 2006 are referenced with gestural brush strokes, whilst also suggestive of tangled roots. Roots and fire, passion and rage. Samiu reflects the perspective of a Tongan living in diaspora in New Zealand, watching from a distance, present but not present. His work will speak to Tongans in a different way than it will to non-Tongans. His exhibition will be in Otara, in Manukau City, the heart of Pacific New Zealand, where Tongans are the second largest Pacific Island group after Samoans. Samiu’s work will be viewed, understood and appreciated by a broad range of viewers, but in it’s placement specifically in a space which is accessible to Tongans, the work will speak beyond being just painting, it will represent the expression of where Tongans are, how they see themselves. It is this kind of artist whose artwork moves people and thinking, and moves Pacific people into the future.
Here and in the case of the Fijian salusalu, the audience, Pacific people, are the defining factor. It is the audience that stands to expose the divisions in the community of contemporary Pacific art and artists, and those who associate and capitalise from them.