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TULISI

CHRISTOPHER ULUTUPU


COVER:

Into the Arms of my Coloniser (video still), 2017, digital video with stereo sound, 16’22’’ duration


TULISI CHRISTOPHER ULUTUPU

CURATED BY DAVID BROKER


TULISI

Christopher Ulutupu says, “Postcolonialism is not a subject I have chosen to explore, rather, it is a reality that I have been born into. As a Samoan New Zealander I find myself automatically designated the position of ‘other’, and my image perpetually projected through the lens of the dominant culture.” 1 Using his formidable skills as a video artist and set designer, Ulutupu’s work attempts to negotiate space between cultures that avoids or subverts the stereotypes attributed to the descendants of migrants from across Oceania. Tulisi or tourist, is the story of a ‘visitor’ to the country he was born and raised in. Ulutupu’s perceptive, poignant and amusing digital video works challenge the romantic misconceptions that have developed around Pacific cultures, ironically, as a way of integrating them into New Zealand’s cultural landscape. 1


From the moment I saw Ulutupu’s Into the Arms of my Coloniser (2017) in The Tomorrow People at Adam Gallery in Wellington, I felt a curious sense of connection. The way this artist (unknown to me at the time) had presented an iconography of compelling characters and signifiers that evoked aspects of New Zealand’s contentious mix of cultures seemed to strike a chord. Showing in the gallery’s stairwell, Ulutupu’s moving video work set on an artificial beach loomed large as a stylish couple dances by a fake yakka tree, oiled muscle men flex, members of a Samoan family sing, a child wrestles with a large white toy rabbit; and throughout, the players lounge on beach furniture. There is an air of struggle on this breezeless and sunless beach and yet, the video is paced by seven chapters of resolution as Ulutupu seeks to create a cultural space in which he can feel a sense of belonging. In the context of New Zealand’s cultural synthesis, Ulutupu’s accessible visual language literally draws a line in the sand; a malleable metaphor that serves as a transformational conduit from alienation to some form of negotiated association. This work begins by raising the spectre of love and how the thinking person might approach a relationship with a person who represents the ‘colonial masters’ through whose lens others have come to be identified. A repository of personal memory, Into the Arms of my Coloniser brings together elements of whakapapa (family and ancestry), popular culture, music and sexuality. Maintaining a strictly personal stance in respect of diverse cultural signifiers, he facilitates the opening of a space for understanding the issues that an individual of Samoan heritage might be challenged by in the context of a colonial hang over. It is here that Ulutupu breaks away from the post-colonial narrative he was born into while also coming to terms with this same story, creating in the sand what he calls a ‘hyphen space’ where meaningful intercultural dialogue might take place. This hyphen, however, is not a reclamation of lost identity but rather an acknowledgement of the interwoven relationships formed between Indigenous peoples and their colonisers. As he puts it, “Throughout the various discourses around Postcolonialism there is little mention that you can construct your own identity. …. The question then changes from “Who am I?” To: “Who do I want to be?” 2 At Hobiennale 17, a gathering in Hobart of Artist Run Initiatives from Australia and New Zealand, I was surprised to find that Ulutupu was one of the people I had organised to meet along with other representatives from play_station gallery, Wellington. In The Romantic Picturesque a ‘mini-retrospective’ in the bunkers of Battery Point he presented a selection of works that activated the dank, dark tunnels 2


of the 19th century munitions facility built to protect Tasmania from Russian invasion. The title of this exhibition reflects an interest in postcards—particularly those of the early 20th Century—and their role in creating a distorted impression of ‘exotic cultures’. Postcards of Samoa from this era imagined Indigenous culture not as it was, but as tourists desire it to be. With ‘swaying’ palms, spectacular sunsets, exotic rituals and semi-naked ‘dusky’ maidens, the postcards generated their own sense of reality which often had little to do with the culture they represented. In both Samoa and New Zealand where the economies are significantly dependant on tourism, postcards are a point of connection. The Romantic Picturesque also refers to a series of two specific works that began as an investigation of exotica from the point of view of a Samoan New Zealander. In a way this work was designed to turn the tables, to romanticise the ascendant culture through single scenes depicting Pākehā (European) New Zealanders performing characteristic acts of leisure. For the sake of emphasising categorisation the two works separate men and women who occupy two different spaces on a stony riverbed near Wellington. Then men in swimmers do blokey things; drinking, smoking and washing themselves in the clear running waters that pass by their fictional camp setting. The women in bathers and robes read, mix g&ts from a chilly bin (esky), smoke, sunbathe and chat in their outdoor setting. Both works are subtly erotic, a flashback perhaps to the early Samoan postcards. Postcard 1 and Postcard 2 parody the leisure activities of New Zealanders who like to take the comforts of home as they visit the river or the beach. Ulutupu considers himself complicit in the absurd westernised relationship with natural landscapes and notes, “There seems to be an understanding (Westernised at least) that indigenous cultures, like Samoa, have an affinity to the environment, a myth fuelled by the advertisement of holiday getaways. I am trying to return to the wild on my own terms, even though I don’t know what the wild looks like quite yet, because my perception is skewed by the dearth of imagined imagery.” 3 Positioning the European cast of these two works as ‘new objects of desire’, Ulutupu expresses some dissatisfaction with the authenticity of these postcards. The dreamy silence of an afternoon by the river reflects his complicity, and a subsequent series of collaged postcards, Relax, Honey and Rinse (2016) redress this issue. Here he refines the previous works with a sharper focus on artificiality where performers are superimposed onto internet sourced screen savers of generic landscapes; a sunny island paradise, a tranquil glacial lake and a spiritual forest. They are at once familiar as commonly imagined landscapes, and unfamiliar in the sense that is it impossible to experience these impossible scenes, enhanced as they are, to 3


ABOVE:

Relax (video still), 2016, digital video with stereo sound, 4’32’’ duration

PREVIOUS PAGE: Postcard Series 2 (video still) 2016, digital video with stereo sound, 29’00’’ duration


decorate the tools of communication. A digital update of ‘chocolate box art’, once synonymous with the epitome of beauty, it is now used as a pejorative term to label the idealistic and overly sentimental. Also based on memory, this series dislocates the performers from the backdrop as they float awkwardly over the simulated scenery. They were in fact, never there. Relax is inspired by an uncle whose intricate hand drawn postcards of European tourists lounging on a tropical beach at sunset transcribed an unattainable paradise that Ulutupu confesses he dreamed of being transported to. Honey presents a man and a woman waltzing over a glacial lake; the same couple at different times dancing to the tune of their homogenized and regulated heterosexual relationship. Rinse, set in a ‘spiritual forest’ presents a fake ritual based on the bible story of Jesus washing the feet of Mary Magdelene. Importantly, the performance element of these three images does not impact upon the landscape and may not even bear any relation to it unlike The Romantic Picturesque in which performers respond to their surroundings in real time. The idea that Indigenous peoples have an innate connection to their lands of origin and diasporic descendants will somehow inherit this is an anathema to Ulutupu who unequivocally declares his ‘artificial relationship with land’ through this series. In Fame and Dispel (2016) Ulutupu sets an ominous tone. On the left a young Samoan woman dressed in the flamboyant uniform of a marching band performs an interpretation of a sasa (traditional group dance). Appearing in a dream she performs alone in a dark foreboding forest; her culture and individuality crushed by the uniform and its colonial connotations. Fame foregrounds Ulutupu’s sense of being ‘other’; and by introducing a Samoan subject, he makes a direct personal reference that challenges the audience to consider how they are responding to a work presenting a person of colour. As Dilohana Lekamge puts it in her writing for The Romantic Picturesque exhibition, “ Minorities perform for the majority almost constantly, whether it is conscious or not – adapting language, names, accents, clothing and conversations to make the majority feel comfortable and for themselves to feel safety. This is the kind of performance that often goes unrecognised but Ulutupu creates staged dramatizations … .“ 4 The question of for whom Fame (Ulutupu’s sister) is performing might be partially answered by Dispel where we see a white man pacing towards the camera, turning and returning to his original position in dense green vegetation. Using a cinematic device from horror movies, Ulutupu introduces a menacing 4


ABOVE:

Rinse (video still), 2016, digital video with stereo sound, 4’30’’ duration


ABOVE:

Honey (video still), 2016, digital video with stereo sound, 4’24’’ duration


and confrontational character, whose presence in relation to Fame is ambiguous and open to a number of interpretations. These works are studies in ‘difference’, as the artist brings colour into the equation and asks audiences to consider their response in relation to the race of the subject. In what ways, for example, do people read works differently in accordance with their personal knowledge and prejudice? To complicate this, Ulutupu presents the innocent Samoan girl without stereotypical trappings while the white man—with expression somewhat reminiscent of a missionary—is the villain. The mythology of the “tropical island paradise” is seductive and it has proved difficult to shake off. In 1968 the NZBC 5 current affairs program Compass ran a documentary on migration from New Zealand’s Territories. It boasted that Auckland was the largest “Polynesian” city in the world while also asking the rhetorical question, “From the magic of the South Seas, from the Europeans’ dream of paradise, they come to New Zealand. Why?” This was the beginning of an infamous period in New Zealand history where people who were encouraged to migrate were arrested and deported during a period of economic downturn. The “dawn raids” traumatized Pacific Island communities and the consequences have had enduring repercussions for subsequent generations. As a Pākehā New Zealander growing up during this period I am aware that I cannot experience the feelings of dislocation inherited by new generations of Pasifika migrants, thus I move with caution. While the success of intercultural politics in Aotearoa New Zealand is somewhat romanticised, the dialogue between players has been contentious and much work has been done by artists and theorists in respect of the struggle Māori and Pasifika peoples have faced in pursuit of what Ulutupu quotes as an ‘intercultural hyphen’. He identifies and acknowledges artists such as Lisa Reihana, Greg Semu, Robert Jahnke and Shigeyuki Kihara and Lemi Ponifasio as among those who have previously pursued a bridge between ethnic groups that is created from the continuous interweave of sociopolitical and intellectual histories. Importantly, the tensions invoked in this ‘intercultural hyphen’ space are part of a process of every day negotiation covering a broad range of relationships and situations. Ulutupu’s work is part of this ongoing discussion and reflects its progress. His videos might exhibit a less confrontational approach than that of former generations of activists, however, at no point does he gloss over issues of displacement, inequality and racism. Moving forward from a position of strength, he critiques extant arguments in postcolonial discourse acknowledging ‘otherness’, his ancestry and diaspora while 5


insisting unequivocally that his work is ‘transcultural’. It’s not only about who he is but also who he has decided to be. David Broker 2018

Tulisi is a collaboration between Canberra Contemporary Art Space and The ANU School of Art & Design Gallery

Footnotes 1. Christopher Ulutupu, Into the Arms of my Coloniser, An exegesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts, Massey University, Wellington, 2016, 5. 2. ibid., 39. 3. ibid., 29. 4. Dilohana Lekamge, Christopher Ulutupu: The Romantic Picturesque, catalogue essay, HB17/play_ station Hobart and Wellington, 2017, 1. 5. NZBC, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.

FOLLOWING PAGE:

Into the Arms of my Coloniser (video still), 2017, digital video with stereo sound, 16’22’’ duration


TULISI CHRISTOPHER ULUTUPU

CURATED BY DAVID BROKER CATALOGUE BY ALEXANDER BOYNES

THURSDAY 24TH MAY - FRIDAY 15 TH JUNE 2018 ANU SCHOOL OF ART & DESIGN GALLERY CNR ELLERY CRESCENT & LIVERSIDGE STREET ACTON, CANBERRA ACT 2601 TUESDAY - FRIDAY, 10:30am - 5pm

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www.soa.anu.edu.au

CANBERRA CONTEMPORARY ART SPACE GORMAN ARTS CENTRE, 55 AINSLIE AVENUE BRADDON, CANBERRA ACT 2612 TUESDAY - SATURDAY, 11am - 5pm

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www.ccas.com.au

CCAS IS SUPPORTED BY THE ACT GOVERNMENT, AND THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT THROUGH THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL, IT’S ARTS FUNDING AND ADVISORY BODY.

'Tulisi' by Christopher Ulutupu @ ANU School of Art & Design Gallery (2018)  

'Tulisi' by Christopher Ulutupu, curated by David Broker Christopher Ulutupu says, “Postcolonialism is not a subject I have chosen to explo...

'Tulisi' by Christopher Ulutupu @ ANU School of Art & Design Gallery (2018)  

'Tulisi' by Christopher Ulutupu, curated by David Broker Christopher Ulutupu says, “Postcolonialism is not a subject I have chosen to explo...