Seamlessly merging tradition with contemporary art practices, three exhibitions demonstrate the diversity of current practice in Oceania.

Open until 11 September, the exhibitions are held as part of an in-depth focus on Pacific art and culture at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2016.

Installation view of "Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean" (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean” (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

The simultaneous exhibitions are divided into three connected gallery spaces for Samoan-born Greg Semu, Maori/New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana and the collaboration of Maori/New Zealand artist Robin White and Tongan artist Ruha Fifita.

Each of the works on show at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) effortlessly intertwines contemporary practices with traditions and historical references. Although each space has its own mood and tone, the three exhibitions interact, drawing together themes that are significant for Pacific communities today.

Artist Lisa Reihana in exhibition "Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus" at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Artist Lisa Reihana in exhibition “Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus” at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

1. Lisa Reihana – “In Pursuit of Venus”

Based in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Lisa Reihana is a new media artist who works across film, video, installation, photography and performance. Reihana incorporates Maori mythology into her work, combining it with perceptions on contemporary culture. In addition to exploring Maori history and lore she is also inspired by fantasy, advertising and computer games. A complex mix of cultures lives simultaneously in her work. Reihana has been exhibited extensively and she will represent New Zealand at the 2017 Venice Biennale with In Pursuit of Venus (2015), incorporating additional scenes and a new series of photographic works in an exhibition titled “Emissaries”.

Installation view of Lisa Reihana, ‘In Pursuit of Venus’, 2015 at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of Lisa Reihana, ‘In Pursuit of Venus’, 2015 at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

In the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Reihana’s work In Pursuit of Venus (2015) looks back to the colonial history of the region through a re-enactment of the early 19th-century Enlightenment wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804‒05). The original wallpaper was made from 20 panels. It is ten metres long and more than two metres high. It was illustrated by Jean-Gabriel Charvet for French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour and it was intended to be an exotic Tahitian scene to be enjoyed by European and American well-to-do households.

Reihana first encountered the wallpaper in 2005 and was immediately struck by it and the colonial misrepresentation it depicted. The so-called Tahitian figures look more classically Greek in their clothing and gestures. For Reihana the scenes bore few resemblance to her Polynesian roots.

Installation view of Lisa Reihana, ‘In Pursuit of Venus’, 2015 at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of Lisa Reihana, ‘In Pursuit of Venus’, 2015 at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

For the next six years Reihana worked on responding to and correcting the misrepresentation of Les Sauvages, bringing the characters to life through a looped video that celebrates song and dance performed by graduates from Pacific Islander Performing Arts, Auckland, and other Pacific communities.

The result, installed against a copy of the original wallpaper, seems to capture the moods and voices absent in the original, creating a more rounded Tahitian landscape. In the exhibition essay Reihana explains that “Pursuit of Venus [becomes] a palimpsest providing sidelong glances and investigating truths absent from the original work.”

Artist Greg Semu in exhibition "Greg Semu: The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)" 2014-2016, at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Artist Greg Semu in exhibition “Greg Semu: The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)” (2016), at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

2. Greg Semu – “The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)”

Born in Aotearoa/New Zealand of Samoan heritage, Greg Semu is an interdisciplinary artist, Indigenous researcher and curator who works in film and photography. His work often explores themes of cultural displacement in the Pacific as well as challenging the discourse of Colonial ‘first contact’.

In 2007 Semu was the first artist in residence at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris and he has also undertaken residencies at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caladonia, a Creative New Zealand residency in the Cook Islands and a residency at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. Semu’s artworks have been collected by major national and international institutions worldwide including Artbank, Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan, Musée du Quai Branly, National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Installation view of Greg Semu, ‘The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)’, 2014-2016, at NGV International.Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of Greg Semu, ‘The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)’, 2014-2016, at NGV International.Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific) (2014–16) is a series of photographs presented on illuminated light boxes. The works engage in debate two 19th-century European history paintings: Louis John Steele and Charles F. Goldie’s The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand (1898) and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1804–05). Semu worked with indigenous actors during a four-week residency on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands in order to compose the scenes.

Installation view of Greg Semu, ‘The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)’, 2014-2016, at NGV International.Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of Greg Semu, ‘The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)’, 2014-2016, at NGV International.Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Both the originals and Semu’s reinterpretation look at survival at sea. While the originals depict emaciated men, Semu’s works portray strong Māori seafarers piled onto rafts in positions similar to the original paintings. Light seems to shine from within, capturing the spirit of the figures and projecting that out into the darkened gallery space. The scenes appropriate the original artwork while simultaneously disrupting accepted views of history.

In talking about Semu’s work, NGV Director Tony Ellwood commented:

Semu’s work grapples with Western art history and leads us towards a Māori understanding of the events surrounding their ancestors’ migratory voyage to New Zealand.

Artists Ruha Fifita and Robin White in exhibition "Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean" (2016) at NGV International.
 Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Artists Ruha Fifita and Robin White in exhibition “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean” (2016) at NGV International.
 Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

3. Robin White and Ruha Fifita – “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean”

Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean is a collaborative ngatu (Tongan barkcloth painting) by long-time collaborators Maori/New Zealand artist Robin White and Tongan artist Ruha Fifita. It depicts stories of migration that connect Oceania and the world beyond. At the core of these works is the sea, which is described in the exhibition as a “way to each other and to everyone else”.

Installation view of "Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean" (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean” (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of "Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean" (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Installation view of “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean” (2016) at NGV International. Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

The largest ngatu spans 24 metres in length and dominates the centre of the gallery space, laid out like a river in front of the visitor. In total there are eight recently-painted and large-scale ngatu on display.

Artist Ruha Fifita performing traditional Tongan dance in exhibition "Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean" (2016) at NGV International.
 Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

Artist Ruha Fifita performing traditional Tongan dance in exhibition “Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean” (2016) at NGV International.
 Photo: Wayne Taylor. Image courtesy NGV.

White and Fifita collaborated with the women of Haveluloto village on Tongatapu Island, Tonga to create the pieces. The traditional process of creation is described in the exhibition:

In accordance with local custom, the Tongan women have softened and beaten the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree into small pieces, which are joined and pasted together, then rubbed over patterned rubbing blocks to form huge sheets of dyed and patterned paper skin ready to be painted.

This is a living practice that merges traditional ancestral patterns and designs with references from contemporary life in Tonga, demonstrating the versatility of this ancient art form.

Claire Wilson

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Related topics: Oceania, New Zealand, Samoa, new media, photography, profile, museum show

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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