When the postimpressionist artist Paul Gauguin sailed from France to Tahiti in 1891, he believed he was exchanging the burdens of western civilization for a more simple and unencumbered life in a South Seas paradise. In fact, he was perpetuating an enduring myth, as revealed in his paintings of young indigenous women bearing platters of exotic fruits. They seem to be offering themselves to the viewer, along with their luscious foods and supposedly easeful lifestyle. That sensuous and sensual myth of the South Pacific—dominated by what MOA curator Carol Mayer describes as “white sandy beaches and lush, tropical landscapes inhabited by dusky maidens”—has been spun not only by artists but also by tourism, television, film, and even the recent pop-culture revival of tiki kitsch.
Speaking to the Straight at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, Mayer says that the exhibition Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works From the Pacific redresses “these idyllic misrepresentations” of the culturally and politically complex places designated by colonizers as Melanesia and Polynesia. Represented in the show are 13 contemporary artists from Vanuatu, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand (known to the Maori as Aotearoa). Rather than being shown together in one gallery, the artworks are placed throughout the museum, among its permanent collections, and are also on view at the Satellite Gallery in downtown Vancouver. They address a range of contemporary concerns, from cultural identity and the legacy of colonialism to environmental destruction, clan conflicts, and land ownership. “Some of them are humorous,” Mayer says, “and some of them are in-your-face—questioning, challenging.”
Their forms and media range too, from Te Rongo Kirkwood’s ceremonial cloaks composed of hundreds of pieces of coloured glass and Cathy Kata’s woven fibre bilum (string bag), adorned with feathers, shells, and candy wrappers, to Michael Timbin’s painted wood sculpture, imbued with the story of an unhappy family, and Eric Natuoivi’s burnished ceramic vessel with its arms of wood and pig tusk representing local clans. Media works include Greg Semu’s backlit photographic tableaux referencing colonialism and European religious paintings, and Shigeyuki Kihara’s performance videos with their symbolically charged hand movements and motion-capture imagery.
Mayer guides us through the MOA show, winding her way through the Great Hall and the Multiversity Galleries, explaining her intention to rethink the idea of what an exhibit is, and to stimulate dialogue between the Paradise Lost? artworks and MOA’s permanent collection.
Maori sculptor George Nuku and Samoan multimedia artist Rosanna Raymond have often keyed their practices to the museums they exhibit in. Both arrived at MOA well before the show’s opening reception, Nuku to create a large Plexiglas sculpture and Raymond to lead two different workshops, one with local fibre artists and the other with Native youth, and to create an installation with the resulting objects.
Born in New Zealand and based in London, England, Raymond is acclaimed for her work with the body as it speaks through adornment, costume, movement, and relationship to others. Her art takes the form of performance, installation, jewellery, clothing, photography, poetry, curatorship, or collaboration with fellow artists. Much of the adornment she creates—variations on Samoan ceremonial dress—is preserved in photographs, of herself or others. The meaning of this work is more spiritual than anything conveyed in western depictions of dusky maidens. “When you look at the Polynesian body,” she says, “it’s about genealogical matter and the shared space of the ancestors through that. Through living, you enable the past to be in the present. When we make these artworks, we’re activating the mauri, the spark of life.”
The workshops are part of her art practice, too. “I call them relational works,” she explains, “because it’s about building up relationships, working with communities outside your own, as opposed to just bringing in an artwork and plonking it down and saying, ‘Look at it.’ ” Talking to the Straight during a workshop in MOA’s textile lab, she is wearing a wraparound floral skirt and a block-printed T-shirt altered with a multitude of cut-out lines. “I’m a customizer,” she says with a laugh, then explains how urbanized indigenous youth—whether in New Zealand or Canada—can make powerful statements through the street fashion of T-shirts. “We’re looking at identity, looking at activism, looking at how fashion actually has a place in all these realms.”
Complementing Raymond’s customized T-shirt are the delicate tattoos that adorn her arms and legs. “They’re cultural markers, identity markers,” she says. “Tatau is like a language—I often say these are our libraries, our encyclopedias….A lot of the stories are not just mine but are part of my cultural heritage and my genealogy.”
Nuku, too, is tattooed—a walking library of ethnicity and ancestry. An internationally esteemed artist, he was born in New Zealand, and is based in France—when he’s not in airports or ethnographic museums. Waharoa/Portal, his sculpture for Paradise Lost?, is located against the towering wall of windows of MOA’s Great Hall. Subtitled Te Ao Marama—The World of Light, it is composed of stacked Plexiglas vitrines, which Nuku has carved with complex Maori designs depicting gods, ancestral figures, and his own face. Previously used in MOA exhibitions and then set aside, these old vitrines bear the memories of “the incredible things they’ve had inside them over the years”, Nuku says. He is compelled to work with them because they’ve been used to house objects of great cultural significance.
“In the museum, you’re asked to contemplate the sacred object, but you can’t touch it, you can’t access it, for obvious reasons—to protect it and preserve it and contain it,” Nuku observes. “But I say that’s problematic, especially for the communities that those objects belong to. They feel a disconnect because of the vitrines.” He redresses this “disconnect” by treating Plexiglas display cases as if they, too, were sacred objects, carving them in a manner associated with symbolic wooden panels in ceremonial Maori houses.
Raymond will collaborate with Nuku in placing feathers on his work to “activate” it. “It’s not just a sculpture to us. It’s a portal that connects us to the gods and our ancestors,” she says. “We’re opening up the space, connecting with the audience, weaving the audience, the ancestors, the past into a shared space.”