Sangeeta Singh is a Suva based painter. I photographed her here with her new work in Nasese, Suva City. Sangeeta and I both participated in Fiji’s first all woman contemporary art exhibition, VASU: Pacific Women of Power. I find Sangeeta to be one of the most exciting artists practising in Fiji today… her work sat prominently in my mind when I wrote this essay for the VASU exhibition catalogue.
By Ema Tavola
VASU: Pacific Women of Power exhibition catalogue, University of the South Pacific
Women artists have been largely absent from the contemporary visual arts scene in Fiji. Whilst not completely invisible, women have been outnumbered and thus the development of this sector is skewed toward a male truth and a male gaze.
Contemporary art in Fiji has evolved from the success and sales generated by artists, many of whom have emerged from the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific. These artists established a foundation: their aesthetic and conceptual approach prescribed a ‘norm’, a benchmark, and an economic model. The commercialisation of contemporary art in Fiji is a consequence of socio-economic realities. This situation has stunted the growth of the movement, to some extent, as art that doesn’t have a proven or marketable aesthetic can be seen as an economic risk and thus is less likely to be exhibited, written about and appreciated.
As such, an aesthetic of success has evolved. Whilst not limited to these parameters, much contemporary art produced and sold in Fiji features an earthy palette and complex maps of curves, pattern and symbols, depicting bold native stories of myths and legends, love and war. They are noble and romantic, rhythmic, didactic and accessible. They are often visibly labour intensive: as a high end marketable product, this is an indication of skill and workmanship and money well spent.
Art defined by economics has created a polarising effect. If good art is defined by that which sells, all art that doesn’t measure up against the established benchmark can and is undervalued and missing from what contemporary visual arts represents of Fiji’s complex socio-cultural landscape.
Much artwork made by women, non-Fijian and other artists from the margins of society speaks boldly of present day realities. These realities are not informed by nostalgia and memory but by survival, and often gritty urbanity. Artistic responses to issues such as abuse, oppression, incest and violence are often as hard to look at as the issues themselves are to process. This art is not easy. Politically, aesthetically and conceptually, this work disrupts and confronts.
Artwork made by women has often been labelled by male critics as ‘too personal’. Without primary commercial agendas, often women’s art is created as a psychological release, facilitating healing and self-development. It is profoundly personal, deeply political and always relevant. The context of its creation, the boldness of its presence and what is said without words combine to form a poetry of beauty and purpose.
This measure of beauty and depth is on a completely different page to that which has been established by the aesthetics of success. On this page, the hierarchy of palatability and skill is not measured by a model designed by male artists who have gone before. Indeed much women’s art often doesn’t even subscribe to the Western high art currency of oil and canvas. Artwork created using materials found in domestic surroundings is as loaded and valuable as a traditional framed canvas masterpiece.
Whilst there may be a market for frangipani paintings and imagery that matches lounge suites and beautifies board rooms, the international visual arts industry values honesty, authenticity and visual integrity. The fierceness of what Fiji women artists depict about their lived experience is art world currency. Fiji women artists need to be valued at a local and national level: in many ways they will strengthen Fiji’s international profile for all Fiji Islanders.
Women artists should not be economically disadvantaged. Their unique styles and approach need to be respectfully brought from the margins to the centre. To accept and acknowledge the difference that women artists bring is a paradigm shift that will have a transformative effect on the sector and beyond for Fiji’s emerging creative economy. For women’s art to be fully integrated into the contemporary landscape, participation is essential at all levels of the work’s transmission from private to public. Women artists will benefit hugely if their work is responded to by women writers and made accessible to women curators, audiences and commentators.
This exhibition should act as a catalyst to encourage the country’s leading contemporary visual arts institution to not be limited by the commercial market for contemporary art in Fiji, and to embrace difference, risk and new ideas with passion and gusto. This exhibition should inspire leaders of the sector to trust the integrity and validity of women’s artwork, in all its forms, without judgement and comparison.
Contemporary visual art by women of the Pacific is part of the development of our region, and our people. Without it, we are only telling half of our story.
Equality is not merely political correctness: equality is excellence.