In the lead up to ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8) we look back to a work acquired during APT7 by Parastou Forouhar and share insights into the artist’s inspirations.
Parastou Forouhar’s diverse artistic practice, which ranges across installation, photography and drawing, engages directly with her personal biography. Forouhar, who grew up in Iran, was the daughter of politically active parents in the period leading up to and including the Iranian revolution in 1979. Her emigration to Germany in 1991, followed by the politically motivated murder of her parents in 1998, altered her relationship to the country and language of her birth, from one of everyday intimacy to one of ambiguity. It is this space of ambiguity and its potential as a space for creation that Forouhar seeks to develop within her work.
‘Persian for beginners’ 1997, is a series of 15 calligraphic drawings Forouhar created as part of the German-based artist collective Fahrrad Halle. An important formative work in her oeuvre, it heralded her interest in the graceful eloquence of Persian calligraphy as not only a language of communication but also as an aesthetic discipline and space of exploration. In each of the drawings, Forouhar uses the calligraphic strokes and dots that make up the Farsi (Persian) word for a particular animal, to create the image of that animal.
Writing about this work, Forouhar likens the ambiguity around whether we are looking at an image or text to the feelings of affiliation and strangeness she felt when labelled as ‘the Iranian’ among her German colleagues. The visual elegance and simplicity of the drawings beautifully captures the act of trying to communicate in another language and across cultures, beginning with simple things and the importance of non-verbal and written modes of communication for carrying not only meaning, but feeling.
The art of calligraphy has a long history in Iran. Predominantly associated with the writing and communication of the holy text, the Qur’an, it has been explored as a space of aesthetic exploration for many centuries. Forouhar is interested in reclaiming calligraphy from its religious role by engaging with its visual eloquence and later traditions, such as zoomorphic calligraphy, which emerged in the fifteenth century, relatively late in the history of Islamic art, when religious taboos outlawing representation had lost some of their power.
Bold and sassy, this vibrant video work explores the intersection between urban and traditional lifestyles, as well as the artist’s Papuan and Australian heritage.
Over a career spanning decades, Julia Mage’au Gray has creatively responded to her Pacific heritage and culture. Inspired by its performance traditions Gray revives and adapts customary forms, working across dance, photography, tattoo and video to create compelling multimedia works. A characteristic choreographed work by Gray for her company Sunameke Productions, for example, brings dance together with photography and highly polished video projections.
In the 2011 production Who Born You?, to which Best foot forward contributes, Gray explores ideas of cultural heritage and belonging.As a performance piece, Who Born You? draws on an extensive repertoireof Pacific dance traditions to structure and develop a narrative aboutcontemporary Pacific identity. The video components of the work providea parallel thread, intersecting at times with the performers movements,at other times providing an expanded view of contemporary Pacific culture.
Central to the work is the exploration of Gray’s own sense of ‘Nesian identity’. Gray deliberately uses the term ‘Nesian’ to challenge the colonial imposition of ‘Melanesian’, ‘Polynesian’ and ‘Micronesian’ labels and to articulate the long standing connections between all peoples of the Pacific. Born in Papua New Guinea to a Papuan mother and Australian father and now living in Australia with a Māori husband, Gray’s work refuses the idea of essential ‘identities’ exploring the movement across and between.
The spectacular golden grass skirts worn by women in her mother’s Mekeo culture for performance often provide a metaphor for this movement. A close shot of a swaying Mekeo skirt worn by Gray’s sister Yola opens the video segment and dance passage for Best foot forward. As the camera pans out from this, the music tones up and a fully clothed woman in high heels strides away from the viewer, along a bitumen road. Without turning to face the camera Yola stages a dramatic performance centred on the shedding and retrieval of the heels. A seductive tension is created between the ways in which the skirt extends the performers body, its organic fibres fluidly moving in unison with her movement, and the spiky, restricting impact of the shoes which are desired, discarded and then picked up again.
An exploration of the intersection between urban and traditional lifestyles and the artist’s dual Papuan and Australian heritage, Bestfoot forward also responds to the huge archive of colonial video and photography of Papuan women in traditional bilas. The opening shots of Gray’s Best foot forward more or less replicate the pose and adornments of this plethora of archival material, with Yola pictured as a set of seductively swinging hips. A sense of life, power and identity is however restored to Yola as she takes control of the scene, and the choices made around the markers of her identity and sexuality. Best foot forward strongly asserts a sense of a Papuan bodily inheritance as well as acknowledging the historical agency of photography and film — the very mediums that Gray now employs — in the colonial administration of her people. Gray thus retrieves the power over representation that many of her anonymous female ancestors were denied and, by copying their stance and dress, asserts the continuation of Mekeo womanhood.
Bold, sassy and deeply layered, Best foot forward packs a punch. The work provides a strong statement on contemporary Papuan culture, life and identity in the face of urbanisation and a history of cross cultural interactions.
New Zealand-born artist Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is the subject of the Foundation’s 2015 Appeal. Gallery curator Ruth McDougall spoke to the artist about the work and the inspiration behind it.
Ruth McDougall (RM) You were a member of the influential 1990’s performance group Pacific Sisters. Performance, and particularly the performance of a contemporary Pacifica identity, was important in the work of a number of New Zealand-born artists during this period. Can you talk about this period?
Lisa Reihana (LR) Pacific Sisters founding members were Selina Forsyth, Niwhai Tupaea and Suzanne Tamaki. My introduction was via Selina, who was a pattern cutter and seamstress for the Mercury Theatre. We were all based in inner-city Auckland and worked in creative fields, and the Sisters formed at an exciting time — part of a movement reinventing ‘urban indigenous’. Many of us hailed from mixed-up ancestry, and this was a safe place to compare notes on such things as Pacific history, sewing and handcraft skills. Working with the Sisters offered kinship in its collaborative approach and shared learning — beauty and brains. Rosanna Raymond and Suzanne Tamaki were young mothers, so besides the sharing of cultural knowledge, we shared childcare — there was much laughter, love and yummy food. And of course everyone was gorgeous and proud of their DNA. There were male ‘sisters’ too, marvelous musicians such as Henry Taripo, Karlos Quartez, Brother J — sexy, groovy and loud, you couldn’t help but notice when the Pacific Sisters arrived. Our contemporary approach wasn’t always acceptable as we challenged tradition, spun yarns and busted open notions surrounding what Māori and Pacific practice could be.
RM What was it about the Dufour wallpaper Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique c.1804 in particular that inspired you to use it as the trigger for this work?
LR I was at Hyde Park Art Centre, in Chicago taking part in the Close Encounters project. Within HPAC is the Jackman Goldwasser Gallery with 10 videowhich projectors create a 10 x 80 inch panoramic screen. As a multi-channelfilmmaker I so wanted to make something for that space. The gallery has itsown unique challenges and technical characteristics; it’s able to be seen bothday and night, as well as close-up or at a distance from across the road. Sowhen I was searching around for ideas that would suit the set-up, I recalledJames [Pinker] introducing me to Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique on showat the NGA in Canberra . . . Hyde Park’s video gallery suddenly made bringingthe panoramic wallpaper to life seem possible. I could see the potential, andhave spent the last six years bringing that vision to life.
I wanted to . . . present real Pacific peoplesengaged in their own ceremonies — herewe are . . . living, breathing and beautiful.
RM The use of performance continues to play a key role in your work and in your newest four-channel video in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015 it is the mechanism used animate nineteenth century representations of Pacific peoples, allowing contemporary descendants to speak back. Can you talk a little bit about the types of representation you are responding to in this work?
LR Les Sauvages claimed to represent indigenous peoples, but like many things, it is a mirror of its time. Entrepreneur Dufour accompanied the wallpaper with a prospectus that included some very disparaging remarks about some races. The characters clothing was influenced by the discovery of Pompeii — hence their dress of wrapped tapa and feather bindings has strange approximations that are more like togas with ribbon detailing. I wanted to re-animate the wallpaper to present real Pacific peoples engaged in their own ceremonies — here we are . . . living breathing and beautiful. Not only is there a shift in the representation of the indigenous peoples, but the background moves too, it is a mesmeric slow pan that shifts the very ground, destabilising the foundation it is based upon. And as a viewer, you are posited as tangata whenua — the local people, so in Pursuit of Venus [infected] allows you to stand for a while in someone else’s shoes — the original land owners or the harbingers of colonisation. Like any business or organisation, this project has an acronym, too: In filmic terms, ‘POV’ is the shortened form of ‘point of view’ . . . and these slippery notions take place throughout the video work.
RM You have in the past been described as a story teller. What are the stories that you want to share with audiences of in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015?
LR I scoured Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas (2003) and NickThomas’s Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain Cook (2004), wonderingdeeply about the encounters between peoples of different geographies andcultures. The value of re-enactment is to physically see it, and as a filmmakerthis is something I am able to do. When iPOV is projected, the scale brings animmediacy to history — it’s no longer a line on a page but something embodiedand visceral. As there is little dialogue in the work, the audience mustdecipher what’s going on, much like the historical characters as they livedthrough these cross cultural communications and miscommunications. I’mof mixed descent and am the camera on the shore and the explorer, witnessto the events and daughter of the oppressed and oppressor. Sometimesit’s the smaller details that grab me. In thinking about early tattoo culture,such famous symbols like anchors were tattooed on European bodies by theTahitian Arioi; and artists made their own relationships without the safetynet of armed Marines by their side. There are over 65 vignettes in this work,hopefully everyone in the audience will have something they can relate to,ponder on or at least be left with a sense of wonder.
Three large-scale photographs from this photographic series were recently acquired for the Collection and will appear in APT8 in November this year. Here is the background to these sublime portraits.
The photographic series ‘Blood Generation’ is born out of the people of Bougainville’s ongoing grief over the loss of their land as the result of mining interests. When Bougainville artist Taloi Havini talks about this history, she speaks passionately of the violent turning of earth to which they belonged, the earth that sustained her people for generations, and of the loss of soil containing graves — not only old graves, but the places where future generations were to be laid to rest.
The large-scale photographs comprising the series appear as a landscape with all the sublimity of an expanded vista. They also contain incredible detail that pulls you into intimate textures: earth, skin, pores. The work is all about these two views, and crucially, what happens when they collide. Beginning with a group of portraits set in the devastated landscape of the contested Panguna mine in Bougainville, the series asks what happens to the surface of the earth and to the skin and pores of the bodies that inhabit it, when you step back and view it as a picture — are these merely things to be consumed?
The term ‘Blood Generation’ is the name used in Bougainville to describe children born into the conflict that began in 1988 and raged for a decade between local landowners and the Papua New Guinean government, its business arm Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the Australian owned mining company, Conzinc Rio-Tinto of Australia Limited (CRA), over the land of Panguna. Selecting this generation as the primary subject of their photographic series, artist Havini and photographer Stuart Miller seek to ‘flesh out’ the human cost, engaging with the impact on these young people of the destructive mining and loss of traditional lands.
The images are portraits and are deliberately titled with the given names of their subjects: Russel, Mathew, Veronica, Sami, Issac, Mark, Gori. The works are intimate, not only in the close-up, detailed views that they provide but also in the ways that they articulate these individuals’ relationship to where they are. The Gallery recently acquired three of these portraits. In one, Russel is perched at the top edge of the Panguna landscape once occupied by six different indigenous groups, looking reflectively across its now empty, terraced expanse. In another, jean-clad Veronica pauses in the hoeing of the family garden, cultivated on customary land to provide their subsistence. Lastly, Mathew sits in the corner of an open-air boxing enclosure, empty and fenced with barbed wire, silently preparing for the next round.
Created as talks resumed around reopening the open-cut Panguna Mine, the series is as much a political statement as it is an aesthetic one.
The subjects of the photographs — Russel, Veronica and Mathew — are all a stark reminder that the site of the mine was and continues to be an inhabited landscape. They also assert a fiercely held sense of resistance and cultural autonomy. The people of Bougainville fought for a decade, with flesh and blood because the land isn’t a vista or a commodity but the place of their past and their future.
In the words of Bougainville leader Raphael Bele:
To Bougainvilleans, land is like the skin on the back of your hand. You inherit it, and it is your duty to pass it on to your children in as good condition as, or better than, that in which you received it. You would not expect us to sell our skin, would you?1
1 Raphael Bele, ‘The Bougainville land crisis’, 1969, p.29, in Moses and Rikha Havini, Bougainville: The Long Struggle for Freedom, New Age Publishers, Surry Hills, NSW, 1999, p.12.
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, QAGOMA
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Dutch photographer Ans Westra’s beautiful black-and-white photographs from two important series from the 1960s depict a day in the life of a large Māori family in rural New Zealand.
For over 50 years, Dutch-born photographer Ans Westra has been absorbed by the documentation of Māori communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her often frank photographic portraits have elicited varied responses, ranging from great acclaim to the censorship of the ‘Washday at the Pa’ series in the mid 1960s, to the appropriation of one of her images by leading New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai for the Collection work What’s the time Mr Woolf 2005. Looking at these photographs, it is obvious that they are more than mere documents. Superbly composed and realised, Westra’s works resonate with a deep feeling for her subjects, their culture and, more importantly, their future. Along with many Māori elders, Westra pictures the foundation for this future involving an ongoing connection to land, family and culture, even when individuals move to cities, work alongside Pakeha (non-Māori New Zealanders) and other people from other communities, and pursue aspirations unrelated to Māoritanga1.
The ‘Ruatoria’ series was created in 1963 in the format of a children’s photo story book for the New Zealand Department of Education. Written and illustrated by Westra, the book was titled Washdayat the Pa and portrayed a day in the life of a Māori family with nine children, who lived in a cottage on the rural outskirts of ‘Taihape’ (the name of a town in the ’cold and snowy moutains’ of New Zealands volcanic plateau that Westra gave to Ruatoria in order to protect the family and heighten the picturesque in the story). These beautiful images record family routines, including washing and baking bread, as well as childhood escapades — smoking Mintie wrappers, trips down to the river, and warming cold feet on the rustic wood stove before bed. Shortly after its release to schools, however, the Māori Women’s Welfare League objected to the book on the grounds that ‘The living conditions shown are not typical of Māori life’,2 and it was withdrawn by the Department of Education.
The withdrawal of Washday at the Pa was one of the first examples of censorship in New Zealand and, as can be imagined, it generated intense debate. Today, two stories accompany Washday at the Pa: the children’s tale written by Westra about the Wereta family; and a history of responses to the ‘Ruatoria’ photographs, republished for public distribution later in 1964 by Caxton Press. As Mark Amery observes in his 2011 essay on the series, ‘these photographs . . . have been a lightning rod for discussion about how society — and in particular, Māori — are represented through photography’.3 These debates persist today around the world, as European constructs of the life and culture of indigenous peoples continue to be challenged, particularly by new generations of indigenous artists taking up the camera themselves.
Speaking directly to the ‘Ruatoria’ photographs is a group of images documenting events at the Māori church Ratana Pa in Whanganui. Westra was initially commissioned to photograph events at Ratana Pa by the Māori magazine Te Ao Hou in 1963. The subsequent body of images, built up over 50 years, engages with expressions of the Ratana faith, founded in the 1920s by faith-healer and seer WT Ratana, whose political activism achieved significant social and welfare outcomes for Māori people. Ans Westra’s portraits of the annual 25 January pilgrimage celebrations, as well as more regular gatherings of the Ratana faithful, provide moving insights into the role that this church played within individual lives as well as documenting a movement and a time.
Endnotes 1 The qualities inherent in being a Māori, relating to heritage or culture. 2 Mrs J Eta, Ngatiporou District Council in Publishers note, ‘Washday at the Pa’, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1964, p.2. 3 Mark Amery, Washday at the Pa, Suite Publishing, Wellington, 2011, p.2.
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