In Foreign Objects, Samoan multimedia artist Angela Tiatia creates a new museum of objects and imagery sourced from the Internet. Through searches using words like “Polynesia” and “Pacific”, words that are used to describe a region and complex interwoven communities of people, the material sourced paints an intriguing picture of the economics, power and politics of representation of Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islandness in popular culture.
Recently, many museums have evolved to foster dialogue and meaningful engagement with indigenous communities. But museum collecting has historically represented the beliefs, values and disciplines of the collectors, and further, seen as objective representations of people and cultures. In the context of colonialism, history from the perspective of one party is problematic.
Tiatia uses the museum as a medium to identify and investigate the language of collecting, encouraging us to question who the collector is and what is the context of their enquiry. In her re-imagined museum space, she reverses the gaze, assuming the position of the collector and not the collected.
These symbolic objects of representation form a pseudo-anthropological investigation of pop culture and e-commerce, tourism and the trade and exchange of Pacific Islandness. Using the exhibition language of the museum, Tiatia centralises the vitrine[i] putting cultural ideas and perceptions under a microscope.
As commodities “made in our image”[ii], this assemblage of readymade objects is an indirect homage not to the hands (or machines) that made them, or the economic context they represent, but to the cultural references, inspiration and intellectual stimulus that created them. The fact that nothing here is physically made by the artist perhaps represents the distance and dislocation of these representations of the Pacific.
The items in Tiatia’s collection have been purchased largely from the American online shopping website, ebay. Not only are the objects themselves rich manifestations of cultural cringe, the terminology used by buyers and sellers represent a further layer of continued stereotyping and misrepresentation, particularly with regards to the commercial delineation of authenticity.
Foreign Objects is a continuation of Tiatia’s recent interest in the post-colonial dynamics of the tourism industry. Her recent video installation, Neo-Colonial Extracts (2010) is a poignant and raw look at the reality of tourism in the Pacific. Featuring the derelict site of the Sheraton Resort in Rarotonga,Cook Islands, the work identifies the significant economic gain for local communities, and the scale of failure when tourism ventures collapse.
Tiatia’s 2010 video work Hibiscus Rose-Sinensis confronts viewers upon entry at Fresh Gallery Otara. In an exhibition formed largely from readymade objects, the work is in a sense a contextual statement. In a performance featuring the artist herself, a perfect red hibiscus flower is slowly consumed, revealing the face and penetrating gaze of the consumer – a Pacific Islander becomes visible, present, dominant. The red hibiscus, a common motif in contemporaryPacificIsland visual culture, potentially represents the historical and ongoing misrepresentations of simplicity, beauty and the Western concept of paradise. Here it is considered and slowly but surely devoured.
Tiatia’s first site-specific solo exhibition is repatriation of sorts. Her museum of paradise is steeped in the politics of a post-colonial hangover. There is a sense of nostalgia, in the memory of Oceania at the early stages of our relationship with the West, but equally a sense of disempowerment. Stereotypes and colonial ideas, views and framing of the Pacific endure and continue to inform misrepresentations in film, mainstream media and popular culture.
Fresh Gallery Otara is a constantly evolving site for the consideration and commentary on contemporary Pacific Island experience in Aotearoa. Presented here, Foreign Objects promotes a process of reflection, empowering viewers to consider the power play of representation and the politics of museums.
[i] A glass display case commonly found in museums.
[ii] In conversation with the artist, Grey Lynn, August 2011