Contemporary Pacific Art and Issues

I have to admit to initially feeling a bit daunted by the idea of discussing contemporary issues in Pacific art, given the breadth and diversity of the field. Deciding that it would be best to focus on one particular aspect of contemporary Pacific art practice, I kept coming back to this year’s Walters Prize, and in particular Kalisola’ite ‘Uhila’s nominated work Mo’ui Tukuhausia. In the original iteration of this work at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in 2012, ‘Uhila lived homeless in areas around the gallery in Pakuranga for two weeks. Through his actions, ‘Uhila aimed to gain a first-hand understanding of what it means to be homeless, while also drawing out unspoken assumptions about homelessness. Situated within the context of the exhibition What do you mean, We?, curated by Bruce E. Philips, Mo’ui Tukuhausia is an example of how art can reveal the underlying conditions that shape how we relate to one another.

For me, ‘Uhila’s performance brings to mind the wider prominence of what is sometimes referred to as socially-engaged art or social practice. The term social practice is both elastic and somewhat polarising. Broadly speaking through, it is a term used to describe art that intervenes in social relations and reflects a turn towards participatory, collaborative, interactive and interventionist art practices. Social Practice, both a phrase and as a mode of art making, has gained currency as artists increasing integrate art more directly into the realm of the social, either in order to redress social problems such as economic crises, homelessness, and racism or more generally to increase the accessibility of art projects. As Art Historian and Critic Claire Bishop has observed, “This mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, antimarket, politically-engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life.” Recent local exhibitions, such as ST PAUL St Gallery’s This Home is Occupied and indeed this year’s Walters Prize corroborate the notion that the relationship between art and socio-economic realities is a key concern for artists practicing today.

For me, what is interesting about social practice are the strategies employed to investigate, critique and even redress social conditions. It could be argued that a closer investigation into the structures that govern us might be of particular interest to Pacific artists, given the statistical disadvantages facing Pacific people living in New Zealand. The Salvation Army’s inaugural State of the Nation report published last year reported that Pasifika people living in NZ were hit the most severely by the last decade’s economic downturn, with the highest percentage of unemployment, lowest incomes and a widening income gap that could see them left behind if and when the economy recovers. A concern that current systems leave behind Pacific people is certainly a criticism that has been levelled at the systems governing art institutions. Auckland-based curator Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai, for example, has argued that the Western concepts of art that underpin arts discourse create a binary between art and craft, traditional and contemporary, which serves to exclude, and worse, delegitimise the work of many Pacific Island artists. Similarly, Ema Tavola’s curatorial practice often takes a critical look at the accessibility, or lack thereof, of contemporary art exhibitions for local Pacific communities. In an interview published on the website Pantograph Punch, writer Daniel Satele notes that Tavola’s curatorial practice “is an important corrective to the status quo precisely for her privileging an audience others neglect.”


It is within this wider critique of systems and their limits that I want to situate this talk. Specifically, I want to use this talk to consider the practices of Jeremy Leatinu’u, John Vea, Lana Lopesi and D.A.N.C.E. Art Club, who are each working in different ways to explore, reveal and transform a range of social structures.

Though these artists are engaging in projects that have diverging aims, their interest in structural influences share two particular characteristics that I find particularly interesting. First, they are each responding to personal experiences or shared narratives that they have access to, and recognise these experiences as symptomatic of larger social issues. It’s worth noting that these experiences and narratives come from a variety of sources, as each of these four artists and art collectives can and do claim membership to a number of different identity groups, whether it be defined by being of heritage, class, occupation, locality and so on. Their understandings of identity are thus fluid and wilfully unfixed. Though their experiences are inextricably influenced by their Pacific heritage, a Pacific presence or agenda is not always immediately evident in the work that they make.


The second commonality between their practices is a considered and deliberate use of art actions that represent some form of social intervention. The forms of these actions vary, and include performance, installation and events. Throughout this talk, I want to a few different reasons as to why these particular four Pacific artists and art collectives are using strategies that increasingly situate their art within a wider social setting that exists outside of the wide cube.

An artist who examines social structures on quite a principled level is Jeremy Leatinu’u. Leatinu’u is an Auckland-based artist whose work often, but not always, involves filming performances in public sites for presentation within a gallery. His practice to date investigates how these sites implicitly choreograph our behaviour. In his performances, Leatinu’u often intervenes in these spaces with simple, quiet and non-confrontational actions that nonetheless represent a kind of mild transgression that reveals pre-existing social protocols.

A work that set the foundations for Leatinu’u’s approach to his site-responsive performances was Public Observations II. This 2010 video work shows the artist sitting silently on the concrete floor in the main pedestrian thoroughfare of a busy Otara Market on a Saturday morning. As you can see from this still, the camera has been situated at a low angle parallel with the sitting artist, capturing how the crowd negotiate his unconventional presence.

Public Observations II bears some interesting parallels with Leatinu’u’s later work Tight Rope, in which Leatinu’u films himself walking along the middle of Church Street in Ōtāhuhu. Walking with one foot directly in front of the other and with arms stretched out, Leatinu’u mimics the balancing act of a tight rope walker, hinting at the precariousness of his walk. Produced in part in response to a fatal hit-and-run accident that occurred on Church Street, Leatinu’u’s work exposes the fraught ownership of roads as public spaces, and like Public Observations II, tests to what extent roads can accommodate for unintended behaviour.

It’s notable that, like Leatinu’u’s future works, both of these interventions takes place without warning or permission. For the unsuspecting crowds or passing cars, there is nothing to distinguish his actions as artworks. Instead, Leatinu’u intervenes directly into the social fabric that he is investigating. By using his body to resist or depart from social performance expected in different sites, Leatinu’u enacts existing social friction in order to disclose it. It’s interesting to me that the actions Leatinu’u uses are minimal in nature. Simply sitting or walking is sufficient to isolate himself from the immediate community around him.

I was recently listening to a keynote presentation by writer and historian Shannon Jackson, in which she traces the phrase ‘social practice’ back to its use in social theory, particularly in Karl Marx’s writings. She notes that Marx’s philosophies “aimed to recall the relationality of persons, worlds and things that appear to be discrete and given. His writings espoused the need to expose their sociality of all things and being, that is, their socio-temporal connection to other beings and objects on which their self-definition depended.”.

In a similar manner, I think Leatinu’u’s is motivated less by an attempt to catalyse change —as is often the agenda implied or associated with social practice — and more by the artist’s desire to better understand the existing social dynamics that govern spaces, as well as the social dynamics between himself and the world around him. To this end, Leatinu’u often works in an experimental manner, putting himself in situations or spaces where the repercussions of his actions aren’t yet known and at times remain unknown even to himself until he watches back the filmed footage.

Perhaps the most evident example of Leatin’u’s experimental contemplation of his place in the world is a series of performances recorded last year. The resulting four part footage is to date un-exhibited and as far as I know untitled. The project takes as its focus New Zealand’s statues of Queen Victoria, which can be found in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. In each of these locations, Leatinu’u sits on top of a portable ladder opposite the statue, and simply stays there for awhile.

This work can be understood as Leatinu’u’s personal contemplation of the relationship between him as individual and the statues as symbols of a complex colonial history. There are a number of binaries that are brought to mind when looking at this work. The statue, cast in stone or bronze, is royal, permanent, and evocative of a imperial institution. By contrast, the artist is a working class individual of Maori and Samoan descent. There’s a perceivable artistic contrast too – between sculpture and performance; the monumental and the temporary. The binaries between the two figures occupying the frame seem to reinforce the oddity of their shared occupation of the same context and space.

In order to make this shared existence evident though, Leatinu’u still has to undertake some action that pierces through its normalcy and resulting invisibility. In a catalogue essay, writer Rangituhia Hollis notes that “The work mimics the tradition of placing objects on plinths to elevate the object and refocus our perception of it away from the banal. The ladder performs the same function as the plinth. Through a working class object Leatinu’u is elevated so that we might watch and consider him as he himself is perhaps also considering his own relationship to the Queen.”

Working in a kind of similar manner is John Vea, who also aims to expose overlooked social relations. Vea’s interest though is more particularly in drawing our attention to the labourers whose presence within the wider mechanics of our economy and daily realities is often overlooked. His desire to make the invisible visible and to seek recognition for the unacknowledged bears some comparison with Uhila’s consideration of homelessness.

Vea’s research often takes place within his everyday interactions with workers that he meets through his daily movements. These relationships occupy an informal space, with stories shared and exchanged as part of casual conversations, or what Vea calls ‘talanoa’. The making of his works thus have a collaborative component to them. He seeks to re-tell the stories that he hears, staying in close contact through the research and making process with the people he has encountered and seeking input sought along the way. Ultimately though, it is Vea and at times fellow artists who undertake the actions or performances, in order to protect the identities of the workers while still drawing attention to their existence.

A number of Vea’s works have been his relative’s experiences in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Launched in 2007, this scheme allows migrant workers temporary residence in New Zealand to plant, harvest and pack crops, with priority given to temporary workers from Pacific Island states. Their contractual restriction to work for the recruiting company that brought them to NZ mean that these workers are unable to circulate the labour market and effectively represent a captive labour force.

Because of these restrictive conditions, Pacific migrant workers occupy something of a blind spot in our understanding of our local economy. In a review of Vea’s 2013 solo exhibition at Papakura Art Gallery, sociologist Scott Hamilton noted that temporary workers are difficult for palangi to conceptualise. He writes “The new migrant workers cannot easily be counted as either members of the Western working class or as inhabitants of traditional, pre-capitalist societies. They occupy a sort of twilight space between economies and cultural codes.”

For a few years now, Vea has been making ‘urban taro’, forms made of plaster and cast from construction cones. The objects evoke both the common taro plant and the ubiquitous orange roadside cone, as well as two common forms of labour performed in NZ by many Pacific people; agricultural work and construction. The urban taro can also be understood as generic units typical of capitalism, cheaply made and easily reproducible.

In his installations and performances, Vea uses these urban taro as symbols of migratory Pacific labour. His 2008 work entitled Import, Export, for instance, displayed these urban taro in three large pallets that evoke imported or exported good. The image of the left shows the installation in the gallery spaces at AUT, while the image of the right shows the work as it was re-staged in 2013 at Papakura Art Gallery.

The Urban Taro were also used in Cultivate, a work first performed 2008, in which Vea and a group of fellow male artists re-enact the process of workers migrating from one place to another. They carried the urban taros in potato sacks from Vea’s studio space at AUT to Myers Park, where they were then placed in rows reminiscent of plantations. The performance was re-staged outside Papakura Art Gallery in 2013. After ‘planting’ the plaster on the ground outside the entrance, visitors would then allowed to pick them up and take home these urban taro, permanently separating the workers/performers from the fruit of their labour. All that would be left behind was a ghostly impressions of white residue.

During a conversation with Vea, he mentioned that this latest performancs was influenced by a recent study, which suggested that early Polynesian explorers might have travelled as far as South America and brought the sweet potato back home with them. “Tracing the history of agricultural products”, an article on the study noted, “is one way scientists track the migration of people during times when no written records were left behind to offer clues”. In a similar traceable manner, Vea’s ‘urban taro’ are used to make visible the migratory labour that supports our current economy, if only for a moment.

Leatinu’u and Vea both intervene in public spaces as a way to reveal, either to themselves or to others, tacit social relations. Artists and art collectives however are also turning towards socially practice in order to develop alternative models for engaging with art to seek a wider audience and more accessible platforms for engagement.

A recent exhibition by Auckland-based artist Lana Lopesi, for example, sought to re-adapt the usual social dynamics of the gallery space in order to encourage a more meaningful audience engagement. In 2013, she staged an exhibition at Artstation called Seize the time, a title taken from the famous book Seize The Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. The allusion to this black American rights movement signals Lopesi’s interest in a parallel movement occurring in New Zealand through the Polynesian Panthers, a formal chapter of the Black Panthers founded mostly by NZ born Polynesians in 1971.

In previous works made during her studies at Elam, Lopesi sought to develop artworks that considered New Zealand’s political history, but found that a lack of knowledge around the history of dawn raids prevented viewers from engaging with her work. Seize the time thus aimed to inform the public about Auckland’s local Pacific history from the 1950s through to the 80s and was premised on the belief that knowledge of one’s own history is crucial for political agency.

For me, this exhibition is especially interesting for the way in which it consciously modified the gallery experience in order to inform and inspire. The exhibition presented for a number of texts and material relating to the history of the Polynesian Panthers. These included: a selection of posters, designed by Lopesi, which employed the slogans of the Polynesian Panther movement; a library of written and audio visual material; and a free publication that included a text by Melani Anae titled ‘All power to the People. Overstayers, Dawn Raids and the Polynesian Panthers’ from the book.



The material on display thus provided extensive contextual information that varied between the snippet through to the more in depth. If you look at the layout of the exhibition, the sparse space is deliberately devoid of an overt ‘artistic’ presence. Instead, you encounter beanbags, chairs, blackboard and layouts of printed material, an environment that feels more like a library or community space than the oft-intimidating contemporary art gallery.

Lopesi’s investigation into the communicative potential of an exhibition involved a pedagogical inquiry about the nature of communicating. Her approach emphasised the notion of story-telling as a way of creating knowledge that is collaborative and reciprocal rather than didactic. For this reason, much of the exhibition took the form of public programming, in which people were invited to share their own histories or partake in discussion. The activities were both broad and many. They included a Heritage Walk: Ponsonby the Pacific years with Rev. Mua Strickson-Pua; a homework centre, a talk about the Polynesian panthers by Will ‘Ilolohia, and forums on the topics ‘Pacific Arts and Our Community: Can our art engage and empower?’ and ‘Innovation, Empowerment and that Pacific Humour’. Most of these activities were thus focused less on Lopesi’s own internal response and more on re-distributing existing context. Eschewing a certain level of authorship, she aimed instead to provide others with a platform to share their own stories.

The distribution of posters and publications were also crucial to the dissemination of historical information. Lopesi’s publication was deliberately made using cheap materials and given away for free, as were her posters in exchange a box of cereal that were then donated to the charity Kidscan. Similarly, her posters was plastered around Grey Lynn and Ponsonby, areas that were central to the Polynesian Panther movement. The circulation of material beyond the gallery space is part of what Lopesi describes as a strategy of infiltration. Her posters and publications were strategically designed, making aesthetically pleasing political slogans sourced from the 1970s. Making these slogans and narratives visually desirable, or at least non-threatening, was Lopesi’s means of reinserting a Pacific presence into places where a Pacific history has been seemingly erased in wake of gentrification. In this sense, the gallery or exhibition space acts not only as a site of display, but as a hub for activity that occupied a much wider geographical presence.

Also seeking an alternative mode of engaging with art is D.A.N.C.E. Art Club — D.A.N.C.E being an acronym for Distinguished All Night Community Entertainers. The collective consists of Chris Fitzgerald, Ahilapalapa Rand, Tuafale Tanoai (aka Linda T) and Vaimaila Urale. The four visual artists met while studying art at AUT and found that they shared a disillusionment both with the individualistic studio culture and with the clear social hierarchies between the different year groups, tutors and lecturers, as well as between the art school and other university departments.

In 2008, D.A.N.C.E. Art Club formed with the aim to facilitate events in which people could come together to converse, mingle and meet as equals. Since then, they have embraced the social dynamic itself as their creative art form and explored the ways in which social interactions between people might be re-energised outside of traditional structures. In order to encourage audience accessibility and engage, their events are people friendly, using music and free food as way to create democratic l spaces that broke down social barriers. The personalities of D.A.N.C.E. Art Club members is also crucial to their ability to draw in people. Linda T, for example, has been known to approach strangers on the street with fliers for upcoming gigs.

An example of a work that successfully democratised existing social hierarchies was Kava Circle, staged at Snake Pit in 2012. Traditionally, kava ceremonies are highly ritualised, and though etiquette differs from one island nation to another, the rules of behaviour, and particularly the order in which the kava is served, are based upon relative social status. In contrast, Dance Art Club’s Kava Circle was informal. Visitors were allowed to sit where they pleased in the circle and wait for kava to make its way democratically around and bring with it the opportunity to speak, or not speak depending on drinker’s preference. The circles began quite small, as you can see here, but was reset as each bowl finished, growing larger to accommodate new arrivals. By bringing a culturally-specific mode of interacting into the gallery, Dance Art Club proposed a new way of togetherness that welcomed all participants as equals, perhaps mitigating the cliques and exclusivity that often accompanies gallery events.

DANCE art club projects have also expanded to sites beyond the gallery, including night clubs, pool halls and public parks in order to respond to different social spaces while also seeking to more actively engage a non-art community within art events. The emphasis on actively including people in their projects acknowledges that these same people are usually excluded. For me, there is no DANCE art club project where this attempt to address social exclusion is more evident than in DANCE FM 106.7. In 2012, D.A.N.C.E. Art Club were invited by Letting Space to participate in Erupt, which is a biennial art festival held in Taupo. During an initial research trip, the collectives spoke to locals, who expressed a sense that the festival brought in a lot of external people in to these towns, resulting in an event that happened to them, rather than with them. So D.A.N.C.E. Art Club decided to develop a travelling radio project that would allow them to go out to communities rather than expecting people to come to them.

In order to broadcast on the move, D.A.N.C.E. Art Club tapped into alternative broadcasting. At the edges of the official FM broadcasting band are a number of low-powered micro-broadcasters. Operating from 88.1 to 88.7 FM and 106.7 – 107.7. FM, these frequency ranges are colloquially known as Guardband. With the help of Timeless Taupo, DANCE Art Club were given the temporary use of their own guardband frequency and so set up a week of mobile radio station known as DANCE FM 106.7.

Over four days, D.A.N.C.E. FM 106.7 travelled to eight communities around TAUPO, interviewing locals and then broadcasting these recordings back to the community. Photographs taken by Linda T were set up on a feedback loop, so that they were displayed on a monitor instantly. Ahilapalapa Rand notes that this mode of immediate feedback allowed people to see themselves and consciously recognise that they are part of the performative project. A notable mention out of all the stops was Mangakino, a small community a 40-minute drive from Taupo that is out of range of all radio frequencies. Due to the topological placement of Mangakino it can’t receive any radio frequencies at all, none. If any of you were at Ahi and Linda T’s talk at Fuzzy Vibes a couple of weeks ago, chances are you saw Ahi teaching the bus stop.

The use of a travelling broadcasting station travelling through small towns draws parallels between the exclusion of small communities from both radio and art, while simultaneously repurposing these platforms to achieve greater engagement. As Mark Amery notes in his essay on DANCE 106.7 FM, “such work has never been more necessary as communities struggle with their isolation in the slipstream and access to the mainstream.”


This concern for the maligned, the left out or even simply the individual is something of a running thread through the work of these four artists and art collectives I’ve been looking at this evening. Though these are issues that Pacific artists have been engaging with for a long time, the modes of art practice that Jeremy Leatinu’u, John Vea, Lana Lopesi and D.A.N.C.E. Art Club are employing represents something of an expanded field within contemporary Pacific art.

In an issue of South published last year, Antony Byrt pondered the juxtaposition of HOME AKL and the 2012 Walters Prize being presented by the same institution in the same year. He wrote, “you couldn’t get two more different worlds. Neither seem remotely interested in speaking to each other.” Two years on, I don’t think the same statement can be made. Work by artists like Leatinu’u, Vea, Lopesi and DANCE art club are indeed bringing these worlds together and in the process, complicating the division of art into either Pacific or challenging. As these artists and collective engage with and contribute to an ongoing discussion about the relationship between art and how we operate socially at different levels, it seems that their perspectives could add something not only to a contemporary pacific arts discourse, but a wider contemporary arts discourse too.

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