More membrane than wall; challenging boundaries in the work of Christopher Ulutupu

“Postcolonialism is not a subject I have chosen to explore, rather, it is a reality that I have been born into.” – Christopher Ulutupu

In his influential text The Pacific Island Race, the late curator and artist Jim Viviaere described Pacific Art in Aotearoa as both a novelty and a handicap; consistently subject to being either excluded or fetishized for its point of difference. That context places an almost unavoidable burden on artists to either perform culture within their work, or reject it entirely. The impossibility of the situation feels particularly obvious for those who situate themselves within a diasporic community. As a Samoan Niuean New Zealander, artist Christopher Ulutupu has many forms of attachment or reference; his Sāmoan ancestry and the worldviews that come with that; a history of living in Aotearoa – indeed, many versions of Aotearoa; his engagement with contemporary art as a global enterprise. There are more fragments that remain unknown. What music does he like? Is he a coke or Pepsi fan? The continual position of a brown artist as ‘other’ not only erases complex, multiple selves, it is in fact reliant upon the erasure. 

In Ulutupu’s work, performance and video art is used to refuse binary singularities. Trained as an art director, Ulutupu balances a broad interest in the possibilities of image production with a critique of the colonial gaze. For the past few years, he’s turned his attention to postcards from the 1900s, looking at the tropes within tourist imagery as they relate to people and places. It’s an uncanny coincidence that Christopher’s other name is Tulisi; Sāmoan for tourist. 

For More than all of the ocean between us, Ulutupu presents two works from two separate bodies of work. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies, 2016, keeps the viewer steadily gazing at a group of Pākehā women lounging on a riverbed at the bottom of a rocky cliff. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies can be read as a counter-strike to the fetishising of brown bodies. To exoticise Pākehā bodies is to subject them – quite literally – to a reversal of the colonial gaze. But The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies comprises more than bodies; it also depicts landscape. While the history of photography and film has often projected a symbiotic relationship between Indigenous people and nature, the relationship between Pākehā and the environment is more equivocal. Māori filmmaker Merata Mita traced a “White Neurotic [film] Industry” in which Pākehā are portrayed as at odds with their environment. As Ulutupu writes, The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies seems almost a “study of disenfranchised urbanites making a feeble attempt to reconnect with nature”. 

Watching an unidentified cliff loom large over the figures though, I’m reminded more of the history of landscape in painting than in photography. In particular, I think of Sublime painting and the positioning of Mother Nature as an overwhelming force. A friend of mine describes it as the (secular) Pākehā spiritual. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies evokes a long history of romanticised landscape that spans both tourist imagery of Moana places as well as European painting traditions. Yet these are not taken too seriously. Watching the film, I also can’t get Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe out of my mind. The absurdity of a nude woman picnicking next to fully dressed men on a public lawn seems eerily close to the ridiculousness of sunbathing in a bikini on rocks.

The absurd is in fact a tool Ulutupu uses again and again to disorient expectations. He notes that “[a]uthenticity of place or experience” has never been a key aspect of his practice. Instead, incongruous juxtapositions act almost as a magician’s reveal of their tricks, hinting at an artificiality that underpins all imagery Indigene. He’s filmed Sāmoans in winterscapes, written performances about life after death, placed urbanites on a beach. Read alongside these works, The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies becomes a caution against any natural or assumed relationship between any given entity and place. In his later works, Ulutupu goes even further. He begins to use absurdity not only to expose the incredulity of colonising stereotypes, but more significantly to open out a space for multiple aspects of himself to exist. 

3 Songs, 2019, has its roots in a real childhood memory of Ulutupu listening to his parents’ Sāmoan music. Based in inherited cultural reference, three Sāmoan love songs provide the video’s timespan and premise. And yet the work announces its fiction immediately. The video begins with three, 1970s-styled brown women, lip-syncing and swaying to the first track. The styling, though deliberately costume, might make sense given the songs are from the 1970s. Except the performers are also superimposed against partial views of the Earth from space. The screen-saver-style backdrops don’t stop there. Over the course of the video, the figures lip-sync over a rocky seaside to a star-studded galaxy through to the more romantic green-screen backdrops of a sunset and a rose blooming. In additional to more obviously generic landscapes, the performances in 3 Songs are similarly more self-conscious than The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies. As a solo lip-syncer giggles nervously in 3 Songs, I’m endeared – I too can imagine myself nervous lip-syncing to a camera. What’s more, both the performer and myself-as-viewer know the camera is there. Unlike the pseudo-documentary framing of The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies, 3 Songs’ deliberate fourth-wall breaches and kitsch aesthetics shout its own construction.

Both collage and fiction play an important role here. Collage and digital technology have been used by artists and the wider populace alike to rework existing images that seem overly contrived; think of feminist collage-interventions in magazines, for example, or online reaction photoshops of obviously staged photos. More fundamentally though, collage and digital manipulation have opened up space to imagine content that doesn’t yet exist. 3 Songs almost feels like a homage to such free-roaming imagination. I tried to read some cultural context into the imagery, but it eventually becomes tenuous. The work’s lasting effect remains a mash up of various timespans and fantasies, the relationship between them simply one that reiterates collage itself. The slippage between the daydreaming escapism of song, the dress-up performance and googled-images feels less like a statement on identity politics, and more like an embrace of a multifaceted way of being in the world. 

It’s tempting when addressing imposed postcolonial politics to create a parallel false binary between artwork and viewer, each occupying assumed racial positions. In these works, Ulutupu’s critique of essentialising imagery is clear. As Ulutupu refuses to settle his own autobiography for the sake of contemporary arts appetites, he also more fundamentally embraces an individual freedom to pick and choose, splice and collate from a wide range of references. As the camera has so often been turned on and against Indigenous bodies, Ulutupu’s work continues a long tradition of artists using the camera to look back. But the coloniser-Indigene relationship is one in constant co-production; to fix one is to also fix the other. As his work progresses, Ulutupu increasingly redirects to imagine him not through contradistinction, but a whole being on his own terms.