Their world was anything but tiny

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Their world was anything but tiny


Natasha Matila Smith Foreword Ayesha Green Where are the Real Maori? Talia Smith All that glitters is not gold Lana Lopesi Cultural Insecurity Bridget Riggir Pacific Materiality

Foreword Natasha Matila-Smith “Somewhere along the way with the rebranding of New Zealand as a multicultural nation, there also seemed to be an overzealous stating of difference. The most obvious example would be the identification of Pasifika art as a distinct field. Among my contemporaries are artists who no longer belong to the generation who remember home as another place. Which is not to discredit artists who draw on their cultural heritage, but it seems this has become an easy scapegoat when dealing with issues about cultural identity.” A view from the other side, Amy Weng. The premise for Pacific Materiality originated from my own insecurity in being labelled an artist of Pacific Island and New Zealand Maori descent. This label I have found to be either advantageous or damning. As it goes, many art exhibitions, have pre-set ideas about what work will be included in their shows – thematic content if you like. However when it comes to being a Pacific Islander, there has definitely been an aesthetic and contextual distinction. Early in my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Auckland, I was encouraged to play on my strengths – pertaining mostly to my cultural heritage and gender. These distinctions can certainly be advantageous. I am also of New Zealand European descent and I was born and bred in Aotearoa, yet this has never been considered as something that I need to have an opinion on. The preconceived notions of a Pacific aesthetic are damning and limiting. On one hand, I want to acknowledge my cultural heritage and keep the culture alive, on the other, I don’t want this to restrict what I am putting out there. This internal conflict between preconceived

cultural aesthetics and readings is a personal and genuine experience. The distinction between Pacific and non-Pacific art calls for a different understanding, a segregation of Pacific and non-Pacific ideas. With different understanding, comes a lack of criticism from the non-Pacific. How can you praise or criticise that which you don’t understand? I was first introduced to the text Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai-Smith through a University lecturer’s Critical Studies paper in 2012. It was also suggested by a friend that if I were looking at the disestablishment of a Pacific aesthetic, then this text was very important. Still, I did not really pick it up until the end of 2014, following a realisation about the contemporary condition of ‘Pacific’ art. Research and methodologies to me, were only ever one style – Eurocentric. Eurocentrism, a consequence of colonialism, presented European standards and ideas as absolute law, as a means of rationalising dominance over non-European cultures. I did not realise that there were alternative styles of researching, teaching and learning. The text thoroughly and critically investigates the practice of research and its relationship to European colonialism and imperialism; the way that Eurocentric methodologies can create segregation – segregation of the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the European and the other. It is in this way that I would apply Tuhiwai-Smith’s research to critique the methodologies of art criticism and the New Zealand art industry. As the industry is now, particularly for Pacific art and artists, it leans in favour of the New Zealand European artist. The New Zealand European artist has a separate world of standards and ideas, usually revolving around formalist properties.

As a consequence of colonial ideas about research, the way that art is now critiqued exists within the same longstanding Eurocentric infrastructure. Pakeha artists have their own challenges, but are already somewhat advantaged by birthright. The Pacific/non-Paheka artists have additional challenges placed on top of pre-determined external prejudices and cultural misunderstandings. However, what must be understood is that even as born and bred citizens of Aotearoa all people, Pacific and non-Pacific, are still victim to the effects of colonialism. Our ancestors, particularly Maori and Pacific Island, were discouraged from engaging with their own cultures and languages. They were made to feel ashamed of where they came from. Even very recently, artists like Siliga David Setoga express this notion in their works. Siliga’s Blackboard Work for Home AKL (2012) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki spoke very clearly about his own struggle with the New Zealand educational system. Coming to New Zealand from his homeland of Samoa, where Samoan was his first language, he used the name David at school because Siliga was foreign, hard to pronounce, not English. There is a pressure on all New Zealanders of this generation to retain whatever culture they have miraculously accumulated. Though at the same time, they are expected to live in an already colonised Eurocentric country. In attempts to decolonise, but remain true to one’s own reality and experience, is it necessarily honest to disown the colonised reality? Instead it is perhaps more useful to think about ways in which we can be inclusive of all cultures, without diminishing the distinctive voice of any particular culture.

The writers selected for Their world was anything but tiny possess an unconventional understanding of art. As artists, writers and designers of New Zealand Maori, Samoan, Canadian and New Zealand European heritage, each have a similar positioning and question – what does the art of the Pacific region look like today and how can we better understand the contemporary?

Natasha Matila-Smith, editor of Their world was anything but tiny and curator of Pacific Materiality.

Where are the Real Maori? Ayesha Green Public Confession of a Dirtbag Answer to an Equally Confusing Question. So this was when I was working down in Britomart. We had these Australians come in. I worked in a bar restaurant type place, we always had heaps of tourists because of the cruise ships and because of Vector Arena down the road. They were a mother and daughter from Sydney and they had come over specifically to see Justin Bieber. It had been a good day and it was nice chatting to them, they were both high energy and it was easy to make them laugh. Anyway, after a while they came up to the bar to pay their bill. Then the mum asks “where can we go to see the Maoris?” What the heck.. I just laughed. I said: “Well you’re looking at one right now” I was smiling and laughing, like ‘surprise!’ And she goes: “No, where can we go to see the real Maoris?” Woah. The daughter looked so excited. I will never forgive myself. Speaking – not thinking: “I don’t know, there are Maori communities out South....” I can’t believe I just said that. I smiled them out the door. Fuck, I thought, was I getting paid enough to be dumb like this?

All that glitters is not gold Talia Smith The last time I saw my grandfather (when he was still able to talk) he told me of his recent trip to Australia to see my parents and other relatives. We talked and laughed as usual while he sat in his squeaky, wheelie chair wearing an old golf club t-shirt with his Lotto in front of him. This is how I will always remember him. Sitting in the chair at the head of the table, his dark worn skin, his gold watch, his white hair (what was left of it), those glasses that seemed as though they were from the 70’s and the way he would clear his throat. I did not know my Grandmother, who had emigrated from the Cook Islands. My Grandmother met my Grandfather (who himself had come from Samoa) here in New Zealand. She died before I was born but was a constant presence in our lives through the tales that my Mum, her siblings and my Grandfather would tell. We would visit her gravestone at Waikumete Cemetery during most trips that we had made to Auckland from New Plymouth and I got to form an affection for her through the eyes of others. My Grandparents did not pass on many cultural traditions or teach their native Pacific Island languages to their children. This is a commonality amongst those that emigrated during the 40’s and 50’s. As such, I did not grow up understanding any language other than English nor did I experience many of the traditions or cultural customs specific to my Grandparents’ culture. I was told that I was different from a boy in my class at Primary

School, a dirty half caste in fact. That had been my introduction to the confusion that would plague me for years. I know this is not uncommon amongst mixed race children, especially when reaching the already confusing and terrible teenage years. I don’t think I always realised it at the time but I had Auckland. I had my family there. My aunty who I was very close to, my cousin who I practically grew up with. My grandfather who used to pinch my ears as a little kid and when I got my ears pierced I had great satisfaction knowing he could no longer do that. They knew. We had our own traditions, our own language, specific to our family. We laughed and told the same stories over and over. We drank, we sang, we fought and yelled. We then hugged and laughed again. We would drive each other crazy but we were always there. When I eventually moved to Auckland for University, I found myself in a World where although my family were present, I was also around other people who had similar ethnic heritage. This was new to me. I had only known of one other Samoan family in New Plymouth when I was growing up. I lost sight of my family for a while, choosing to get lost in the comparisons between myself and others who I perceived as ‘more Pacific Islander’; opting to belittle myself and my own experiences because I didn’t know that I was actually okay as I was. I remember talking with a tutor about how I had been feeling like an imposter. She had said that it wasn’t like that anymore and that I shouldn’t worry so much. So I tried not to, until a classmate bluntly remarked that I was ‘just a plastic islander’. She seemed genuinely surprised that I was crying. At the time I had thought I had found

acceptance in my peers and to have one of them make a remark like that was a crushing defeat. It meant I was different, back to square one. Talia, island of one, floating in the ocean with nowhere to moor herself. I did eventually keep making the work I wanted, trying to understand what I was feeling, continually struggling to fit in with a group that I thought I had to. When I turned 21, I had a party at a bar in Auckland. It was tradition for my Grandfather to give a speech at family 21st birthdays. We did not know this at the time but it was to be the last 21st speech he was to deliver. He was a straight-to-the-point kind of man who spoke his mind without consequences so naturally I was a little afraid of what he would say in front of my friends. Flashbacks of my cousins and brother’s 21st speeches flashed through my mind. When it came time for Grandad to give his speech, he came and sat by me in his walker. I don’t remember the start or the middle but I remember the end. As he held my hand he finished by saying ‘just remember Talia, all that glitters is not gold’. I smiled in thanks and nodded my head, brushing it off because I had no idea what he meant at the time. Just Grandad being Grandad. I continued on with the evening. He stayed until 1am dancing with us and even when it came time to go, he didn’t really want to leave. It was only after the completion of my second degree at University, during which I had experienced the same insecurity of not being ‘brown’ enough, that I realised what Grandad had meant all along.

I didn’t need to worry about not being or acting a certain way because the people that really mattered were always going to be there. My family would be there to remind me who I was and who we were. Through our experiences of being two different cultures we had created our own culture, our own traditions, influenced by our own family and the people we surrounded ourselves with. This is what mattered. I was not any less and I was not any more. I became the person I did and viewed my mixed heritage in my own way. And that was actually okay. I live in Australia now, away from my family and sometimes I still slip up and the same fears of not belonging will arise. When that happens, I try to think of my Grandfather. Worn dark skin, white hair which was always sticking out all over the place in the mornings, the way you could hear him singing along to old jazz or classical music in his room, false teeth, the lotto that he would pour over for hours. And then I think of his words to me. All that glitters is not gold.

Cultural Insecurity Lana Lopesi The thing I don’t quite understand is why we are still discussing what Pacific art looks like in 2015. Surely by now we have come to establish that Pacificness is multifaceted. Pacific people span an ocean over 165,200,000 km and on top of that occupy various global pockets of diaspora. Pacific people are diverse, so too is our art. The first wave of Pacific artists (based in New Zealand) can be typified by a clear aesthetic. Predominately, they drew upon traditional motifs, art forms and materials. These artists were either migrants or first generation New Zealand born. In many ways they had a combined struggle; sharing stories of racism, stereotypes, colonial catastrophes and cultural expectations. Their work often centered on untold narratives and hey, they had a lot to tell. They are forbears in many respects. While these now senior artists have definitely paved the way for Pacific arts, for which all Pacific artists are indebted, things have changed since the reign of Fatu Feu’u. Yet more often than not they are still used as an example of what is called ‘Pacific art’. Fast forward to 2015 - the Pacific art experience can now be typified by the Pacific performer. Refusing to depict a story, but instead using the body to pose questions seems a successful mode for art making amongst the Pacific community. There is however always Pacific art which sits on the ‘peripheries’. Artists like Leafa Wison and Andy Leleisi’uao push expectations of contemporary pacific practice using imagery and telling stories outside of the typified Pacific experience. Today, this peripheral art

is illustrated in the playful multimedia practice of artists like Salome Tanuvasa. While Salome’s work is often autobiographical, her biography retains ambiguity, often resulting in minimalist drawings - a stark contrast to the Pacific performance artists of her current community. It’s too easy to say that these trends reflect ‘Pacific’ art; instead all they show is time. Each trend reflects shared experiences and technological advances, not cultural affiliation. These ‘peripheral’ artists are actually just culturally confident makers. Just as you can’t define a Pacific person as being anything other than someone from the Pacific, the same goes for a Pacific artist. The young artist is often forced to answer questions of identity. It’s an internal battle about whether to deal with culture or not, and then how to label yourself. It seems especially pertinent that those who do see themselves sitting on the peripheries have an anxiety about being labelled ‘Pacific’ as though they will be sentenced to perceived artistic confines that they will never break free from. Our ecologies breed these insecurities and project them onto us. We live in a society where Pacific people are so marginalised, yet there is this culturally imbalanced art scene aware of its own biases. Through equity schemes, diversity programs and targeting funding we are forced to identify ourselves. Some choose the opportunities and don’t mind the label and others choose the freedom of not being branded. But the choice shouldn’t be one or the other, it’s how to negotiate both together. So what does Pacific art look like in 2015? Who cares, it’s all just art.

Pacific Materiality Bridget Riggir Paul Tapsell describes the lifeway of taonga as being akin to the flight of the Tui and the comet. Taonga, like Tui, have an ability to ‘stitch’ in and out of time. Artists ‘take all the different threads present and weave them together into a beautiful korowai.’1 The comet symbolizes taonga that traverse paths isolated from the people (within museums or overseas). Although the comet is without material presence it is constant and mappable in its celestial course, often appearing in our horizon. While Tapsell specifically describes taonga tuku ihu, the material nature of this abidance, the flight path of both Tui and the comet, can also account for nonmaterial heirlooms and the way in which they are made present through the expression of contemporary art making. In this way Pacific Materiality can be described as an inherited network of vast interrelations and multitudes, Pacific Materiality is immanence. The function of contemporary expression therefore acts as means of access to this ever-present ancestral knowledge. Contemporary art making is a process of giving surface to this constant, it is a place of arrival. Whether or not artists use mediums and symbols emblematic of Pacficness, the contemporary condition and its aesthetics are throw away. This relation to the world of signs, unlike the logocentric nature of neoliberalism is parasitic but nondependent. There is slackness between expression and meaning in Pacific Materiality. Unchanging truths are channelled through contemporary surfaces that bear little influence on ancestral concepts. For here, the divide of nonevidential truth is crossed on the back of language, signs and 1 Paul Tapsell, “The Flight Of Pareraututu” Tapsell, P. 1997. ‘The Flight of Pareraututu.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society, 106 (4): 334.

signifiers operating as the mechanics of capital that normally prohibit these truths.. This mode of material engagement with the contemporary might serve as a resolve to ‘the crisis of representation.’ As it stands as proof that the ‘subjugating authority of semiotics’ — that supposed codification of all in the riptide of neo-liberalism into vacant market logics — is a Western proclamation that overlooks much in view of itself. For in Pacific Materiality meaning is not determined by capitalist sign-operators. The industrialisation of a Pacific aesthetic (the progression of Pacificness into motifs) foretells the neoliberal policy of Accumulation by Dispossession (the same policy making that produced the events leading up to the 1970’s Dawn Raids). The commodification and therefore ‘fixing’ of Pacificness into rigid signs not only makes market out of culture, but also seeks control in this remove — the accumulation of dollar value but also of governance through the systematic confiscation of culture. This industrialisation is determined by governmental bodies that produce modes of ‘representative public-ness’ via the state calendar. Providing annual images of Pacificness through festivals and exhibitions, these representations are restricted by time and form and replace active democracy, community and voice with the passivity of a culture industry. Yet this neo-colonialist rhetoric relies on the fixity of the sign, and on the indivisibility of meaning from the subject’s embroilment in this project, a neo-liberal plight of being that is not necessarily ubiquitous. The two, now contentious, Pacific artworks nominated for the 2014 Walters Prize each resisted the production of objects and signs in the elevation of subjective engagement — the direct connection between artist and viewer through the extant material world. Neither work appeared explicitly Pacific nor required an encultured viewership. Yet, the work of Kalisolaite ’Uhila (Roaming

All Levels) and Luke Willis Thompson (inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam) acted as advanced reinforcements of Pacific Materiality through the challenging mapping of experience and its strict conditioning of individuation. Engaging with these works the subject (viewer) undergoes a shedding of practiced art reading and being in the world. The art goer who turns to objects for peak living or for metonymy of self in cross sections, here was left only in the event of experience, a heightened attunement to the material world and its points of access to the other (in both cases the artist). The artists withdrew the currency of signs and references to leave little underfoot but a miasma of interrelation. Thompson’s and Uhila’s compositions can then be understood as infiltrations of not only the art world, but also into the state of the contemporary subject itself and its produced autonomy (its closure off from the other-than). These generous encounters pushed for multiplicity and complicity — what I am arguing is a Pacific relation to being in the world and a being with others determined by our shared material experience of the world. Pacific Materiality is a the agency of ethics over and above the totality of the individual subject. However, these channels of experience sculpted by each artist came riddled with faults. The ethical challenges opened by these artworks relied on the too-familiar and troubling dynamic of postenlightenment thinking by way of its other. The notion of ethnotourism, even experiential tourism, burdened the score of both. Subjectivisation became artistic labour and art offered experience for the deprived contemporary citizen. In the removal of the signified and reminding of the reliance on other for meaning, these artworks by way of a kind of cross-comparison expose our dependence on an often shallow materiality of logic. But also the apathetic subject’s numbness to experience in the substance of daily living and so its

dependence on divested space for consciousness. Pacific Materiality may be lent or shown, but cannot be taken, for as an image divorced of its lineage, it will only appear as a type of new age coping mechanism. Surfaces, boundaries and limits operate in neo-colonialist interest, denying the ‘holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships.’2 Epeli Hau‘ofa continues: If we look at the myths, legends, and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only of land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean...the underworld...and the heavens above...Their world was anything but tiny.3 Pacific Materiality is ever-expanding and residual. It stitches to the contemporary so to run tracks etched into memory. While the global suffers under the mechanics of capital, this Pacific Materiality is an unbound and joyous multitude. Contemporary art markers, writers and thinkers seek deterritorialisation, not knowing this takes place on a horizon curved away from its eyes.


Epeli Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Island” In The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 152 - 153. 3 Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Islands”, 152.

Ayesha Green, Talia Smith, Natasha Matila-Smith, Lana Lopesi and Bridget Riggir. This publication was made with the generous support of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust and Studio One Toi Tu.

Ayesha Green, Lana Lopesi, Natasha Matila-Smith, Bridget Riggir and Talia Smith Publisher Editors Designer

Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust Natasha Matila-Smith and A.D Schierning Lana Lopesi



Ayesha Green, of Ngati Kahungunu and Ngai Tahu descent, is an artist currently residing in Auckland, New Zealand. Her practice stems from semiotics, with an interest in language, craft and representational systems. Ayesha has a MFA (First Class) from the University of Auckland. Lana Lopesi is of Canadian and Samoan descent and is an artist, curator, writer and co-founder of the site Hashtag500Words. She is interested in art’s ability to connect to its community. Lana has a BFA (Honours) from the University of Auckland. Natasha Matila-Smith is of New Zealand Maori, Samoan and New Zealand European descent. Her artwork, writing and curating are concerned with the utility and functionality of artworks. Natasha has a MFA (First Class) from the University of Auckland. Bridget Riggir is of New Zealand European descent and is interested in the writing and theorising of contemporary Aotearoa, including art making and the cultural policies of museums and educational institutions. Bridget has a BA(Hons) in Art History from the University of Auckland.

ISBN 978-0-473-31699-0

Talia Smith is an artist, writer and curator of Samoan and Cook Island heritage. Her work for Pacific Materiality will be a piece of writing based on her experience as a mixed race artist growing up in a small town in New Zealand. Talia has a BVA from Unitec, Auckland. Copyright belongs to the authors

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