With performance in its various forms proposed as a major theme for APT8, I felt that the Pacific representation should look not only at the products of performance — live presentations and recordings of performances, songs and dances, as well as body adornment — but also at the important cultural work that it does. This formed the basis for my research in the region.
Performance continues to be one of the most significant forms of creative and cultural expression in the Pacific. Permeating all aspects of life, it spans a huge field, from spoken word and tattooing to dance, music and comedy. These acts provide individuals and communities with creative outlets for expressing their culture and identity: important cultural knowledge is absorbed and disseminated, and this acculturation continues through ceremonies, celebrations and remembrances as well as festivals, gigs and exhibitions.
A quick stopover in Melbourne for the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival and forum at Footscray Arts Centre in late March was a great way to prepare for my trip to New Zealand and Hawai‘i. Powerful talks and performances by some of the Pasifika women working in Australia today set the tone for two weeks of thought-provoking conversations. In New Zealand, I was very grateful for the frank discussion over morning tea with Pasifika artists at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. There was also a morning stroll around the markets and visit to Fresh Gallery, the recently refurbished art space in Otara, with manager Nicole Lim; insights into hula kahiko with PhD student Emalani Case from Wellington’s Victoria University; and a wondrous afternoon exploring the body adornment collections at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
In Hawai‘i, Betty Kam, Director of Cultural Collections at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, helped to bring its displays and collections to life. I chatted with artist and academic April H Drexel about spoken word and performance protocols while exploring Manoa, the pandanus and wet taro gardens of the University of Hawai‘i. I was inspired by the strength of contemporary indigenous Hawaiian art, and particularly moved by time spent with leading kakau (tattoo) artist Keone Nunes as he tapped inky black marks of the ancestors into skin.
The Melanesian Festival of Arts in Port Moresby in early July launched my second Pacific trip. I travelled with Ni-Vanuatu musician Marcel Meltherorong, who will be co-curating a special project on Melanesian performance for APT8. It was exciting to see Port Moresby pumping with energy and people enjoying the spectacular grounds, haus boi (men’s spirit houses) from different groups, and the striking range of performances from across Melanesia. The festival provided a wonderful opportunity to catch up with colleagues working in the region and to see ‘sing sing’ (performance) from areas rarely on the festival circuit.
In Honiara, Marcel and I met a diverse group of artists and musicians and were struck by the entrepreneurial energy there. This was the first time Gallery staff had travelled to the Solomon Islands for APT research, and we were fortunate to arrive on the eve of a new artist residency program, so learned much about the development of various networks and artist alliances. As with every trip, there is the sense of just scratching the surface, and there is certainly much more to explore on the outer islands of the archipelago.
The last stop was Noumea in New Caledonia. Marcel and I are very grateful to colleagues at the Centre culturel Tjibaou — famous for its dramatic architecture, designed by Renzo Piano — for their generous hosting of our conversations with local Kanak artists. We are all very excited about the project now developing for APT8.
Ruth McDougall is Curator, Pacific Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.