A Pacific artist’s response to the 10th Pacific Arts Association Symposium (Rarotonga)
The 10th Pacific Arts Association (PAA) Symposium was held on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands from 9-11 August 2010. My perception was that the PAA is a Anglo-American organisation profiling the views of academics and museum curators who deal in the research, collection and investigation of objects and cultural practices of people of the Pacific region. Working at the grassroots in Pacific diaspora and Pacific proper contexts, where people and cultures are central as opposed to academia and institutions, I hadn’t envisioned that attendance or participation in this forum was a priority for me. However, funds became available and I travelled with my colleague Nigel Borell (Kaiwhakahaere – Maori Arts Advisor, Manukau City Council) and Manukau-based visual artists and educators Leilani Kake (Manukau School of Visual Arts) and Donna Tupaea (Alfriston College).
Given that the event was being held in such close vicinity to Auckland, an important centre for contemporary Pacific art, the planned attendance of actual Pacific artists was encouraging. The visibility of Pacific people, contemporary art and culture, and the amount of Pacific people involved as speakers gave me hope. Papers were to be delivered by: Hūfanga Dr ‘Okusitino Māhina, Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai, Sēmisi Fetokai Poutauine, Apolonia Tamata, Charmaine ‘Ilaiu, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Lingikoni Vaka’uta, Fonofale McCarthy, Marilyn Kohlhase, Rosanna Raymond, Karen Stevenson and Pétélo Tuilalo.
Hosted at an upmarket Rarotongan resort, Pacific people were refreshingly visible at the gathering of speakers and observers on day one. In an undersized meeting room, participants spilled out, unable to hear welcome speeches, but it was an exciting way to meet up with old friends, respected artists and Pacific thinkers – most of which were standing outside in the shade! Unfortunately, from this first session, the event’s poor time keeping became an issue and blaming poor organisation on “Rarotongan time” was irritating.
Keynote speaker, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki – Director of Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, delivered a paper entitled, Contemporary Urban Pacific Art in Aotearoa: A Whakapapa. As a contemporary urban Pacific artist, Mane-Wheoki’s whakapapa was history heavy and showed a complete disconnect with the accelerated growth and relevance of the past many years of urban Pacific art making taking place under his nose in Auckland. History is of course relevant, but institutional perspectives of an art sector born and bred in the grassroots, are dislocated and distant.
Ron Brownson – Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gave a much more relevant insight into contemporary urban Pacific art, representing a thorough and exciting involvement and respect for his subject – West Auckland-based Māori-Samoan-Niuean video installation artist, Janet Lilo. Brownson set a high standard for delivery and research, understanding and contextual scope. His quotes were hot and constant… “narcissism of the now”… “my web shadow and me”… “you are what you share”, he had us stimulated and engaged from start to finish. We were so proud of Janet Lilo, and honour Brownson for choosing to bring Lilo’s practice into this forum.
Pétélo Tuilalo – Head of Visual Arts and Exhibitions, Agency of the Development of Kanak Culture, Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, followed Brownson with an equally stimulating presentation. Robes Mission: un art de la Rue? was a thematic exhibition around the missionary ‘Mother Hubbard’ dress. Tuilalo discussed the introduction and impact, visibility and context of the garment and showed images of artworks, processes, artists and the exhibition install at the Tjibaou Centre. It was refreshing to feel not only indigenous artists responding to a theme related to their own indigenous / settler cultural interface, but also that the project was conceived and implemented by an indigenous curator.
Contemporary Pacific Art and Artists was a session chaired by Dan Taulapapa McMullin; notably, the first session I attended at the PAA Symposium chaired by a Pacific Islander. The audience for this session had a strong Pacific and Māori artist presence with the likes of Leilani Kake, Angela Tiatia, Julia Mage’au Gray, Reuben Paterson, Suzanne Tamaki, Rosanna Raymond and Filani Macassey to name a few.
Jenny Fraser’s manifesto was an exciting start – she speaks frankly about the struggle of being an Aboriginal artist in Australia where only 2% of the population is indigenous. The Other APT is an excellent fringe project to the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) held at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. Fraser introduced her land and people, her source and inspiration. Finally, an indigenous artist perspective was being presented – art as activism, problems as opportunities for progress and evidence of a Pacific / indigenous concept planned, implemented and celebrated. It felt strong and empowering and so, so relevant.
Dan Taulapapa McMullin also presented a beautiful indigenous perspective, in trademark poetic flow. McMullin used his paintings as illustrations of his thoughts, and his thoughts as contextual statements about his paintings. He is a stand-out Pacific artist, writer and film maker with a magnificent presence.
Pamela Zeplin – Senior Lecturer in Art and Design History and Theory, University of South Australia presented a paper entitled, The Pacific in the ‘Big Island’: Oceania Waves in Australia. Zeplin is an academic who has paid some attention to Pacific artists in recent times, and been involved with an effort to create some collective action calling artists to create strategies to increase exposure of contemporary art made by Pacific artists living in Australia. A recent workshop outcome was the creation of a Pacific art themed issue of Art Monthly Australia (August 2010). Zeplin introduced some of the artists involved in this initiative including Tongan painter, Sam Tupou and Fijian academic and artist, Torika Bolatagici. Unfortunately, both names were mispronounced by Zeplin as “Sam Toopoo” and “Tarikah Bolatangitchy”.
Given the opportunity to question and comment on the session, I introduced myself and thanked Zeplin for bringing the Pacific artists she mentioned into this forum and attempting to give us a historical context for their [in]visibility in the wider Australian art world. I said that I had a simple comment and wanted to correct the pronunciation of the surnames of the Fijian and Tongan artists she had mentioned. In the moment, I was overcome with emotion. I could feel myself unable to finish my sentence, so my colleague Leilani Kake supported me to articulate my point. The point was made that pronunciation is important and that there is mana in a name. It was a simple comment that followed from George Nuku, renowned Māori artist and activist, who also asked Zeplin to acknowledge some inaccuracies in her presentation of indigenous / settler historical contexts of Aotearoa. Zeplin responded to Nuku somewhat defensively, but not to me. The chair summed up my point, saying that these kind of gatherings are often sites of gross linguicide – the butchering of our Pacific languages, he acknowledged my emotion as symbolic of the pain of being misrepresented.
I firmly believe that attention to correct pronunciation is a decision based on respect. I commend Australian writer, Jacqui Durrant, for asking me to guide her through the phonetic pronunciation of Bolatagici – a difficult name, admittedly, for English speakers. She noted that she had never heard Bolatagici’s name pronounced correctly. Other speakers incorporating Fijian words and names, Stephen Hooper and Charmaine ‘Ilaiu, did an impressive job.
In retrospect, for the sake of Zeplin’s ego, my comment could have been made in person, but the message of my comment, was for the entire forum. My emotion did not represent weakness. It represented anger and love… honesty and the weight of my communities, as a Fijian and a curator, as a Pacific person, and as an artist, as someone who proudly represents Pacific people always with integrity and strength.
There were other papers at the PAA that represented a positive engagement with Pacific people, both real and meaningful. Non-Pacific academics such as Marion Cadora (Post-Graduate student, University of Hawai’i) and Anita Herle (Senior Curator for Anthropology, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, England) presented papers showing research and respect, sharing and empowerment. There is no doubt that many PAA members often dedicate and invest their lives and energies into efforts to support the sustainable development of Pacific people. In these instances, a system of reciprocity is employed where “the source” is an equal beneficiary to the findings and outcomes of Pacific cultural research and enquiry. This model is admirable. Unfortunately, forums like this also attract academics who still have a subtle undertone of colonial exploitation. Fortunately, this seems to be exposed when face-to-face with actual Pacific people, able to articulate Pacific thought to respond and challenge.
On day three, Australian academic Pamela Zeplin made her thoughts known to an indigenous artist, who shared with me her experience of being used as a sounding board for Zeplin’s ego. Yes Pamela Zeplin, blackfellas talk.
Zeplin proclaimed that my comment following her presentation represented someone who was “immature and hysterical”.
Whilst immediately angered by her amazingly patriarchal response to my comment and hurt by her judgmental attack on me and everything and everyone I represent, her position is exposed. Incidents like this illustrate the difference between people who work with Pacific art and artists for love and service versus currency and academic difference. My Pacific colleagues have shared with me their sadness and support, and my Australian colleagues have helped me to understand the position of Australian patriarchal white supremacy and cultural dominance. When Pacific art and culture is my heart, my work and the language of service to my people, it’s easy to forget the special needs of our region’s colonial settler communities.
Zeplin is celebrated for holding the hand of the marginalised other; leading them into the white light, but her response to an indigenous voice is seriously disturbing.
The PAA gave us an opportunity to gather and share our work, as Pacific artists. On day three, sick of dominant culture discourse, the natives gathered and told stories of conferences past. For my colleague Leilani Kake and I, Vaka Vuku: Pacific Epistemologies in 2006 hosted by the University of the South Pacific in Fiji was a benchmark Pacific discourse event; held in the Pacific, for the Pacific. Rosanna Raymond, respected Pacific artist and writer, told of her experience of being told she was a “naughty girl” after being “sshhh’d” at the PAA Symposium in Massachusetts, at the age of 40.
The conference closed with a dinner accompanied with savagery and fire, the native floorshow reminded me of the Brook Andrew work “Sexy and Dangerous” (1996)
There were three excellent exhibitions shown during the PAA Symposium. Nanette Lela’ulu showed an impressive body of large-scale portraits and small-scale landscapes at The Art Studio, a beautiful collection of tivaevae was shown at a community hall, and Auckland visual artist, Janet Lilo had a solo showing at BCA Gallery. Lilo’s show curated by Ron Brownson, incorporated the video project small axe09 produced for Fresh Gallery Otara for the invitational 2009 New Artists Show at Auckland’s ARTSPACE.