MANUIA! Stereotypical Banality, Cultural Dimensionality & the Key To Contemporary Pacific Art


An exhibition by Beachcomber Contemporary Art (BCA) @
The American Indian Community House,
11 Broadway, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10004
March 15 – May 29, 2010

The Pacific Ocean and her Islands are historically notable, usually in the romantic un-realities of literature, Eurocentric drawings, movies and tourist photography. Swaying palm trees, exotic islanders and primitive landscapes are the archetypical images that provide the foundation of the dominant stereotype. The 18th century English painter William Hodges typified this perspective in his works aboard the second voyage of Captain James Cook. In the mid 20th century, American entertainment icon Elvis Presley bought this ‘reality’ to American living rooms with such notable Hollywood experiences as ‘Blue Hawaii’.

The new exhibition Manuia is not intended to be a decorative Polynesian experience. It is designed to confront traditional, institutionalized theories about contemporary pacific art practice, a challenge to the persistent, universal, ‘pacific fantasy’ perspective that dominates the understanding of contemporary pacific art frameworks. This exhibition is site-specific, and the first ever contemporary art statement curated in the Cook Islands specifically for New York City.

The Cook Islands lie in the Tropic of Capricorn, latitude 9-22 degrees. Rarotonga, the capital Island is a modern Polynesian oasis boasting world class resorts, pacific fusion style restaurants, satellite television, the latest Japanese and European motor vehicles, zero unemployment, an energetic private sector, an international airport with direct air services from Los Angles, New Zealand and Tahiti as well as a burgeoning contemporary art industry that is gaining regional attention.
With a permanent population of only 8000, Rarotonga performs well above traditional geographic expectations.

Manuia features photographer & painter Mahiriki Tangaroa, video artist Jerome Sheddon (in collaboration with celebrated carver Mike Tavioni), multi-media artist Kay George and New Zealand/Pacific artists Michel Tuffery & Andy Leleisi’uao.

In the photographic works of Mahiriki Tangaroa, post colonial issues of identity and place are examined and presented in a photographic installation. By revisiting this theme, the premise expressed in this installation speaks of rapidly developing cultural diversity in an atypical Pacific environment. Tangaroa also paints and is well known in this medium, through her regular exhibitions in Rarotonga and New Zealand. Tangaroa’s oil on canvas works further transpose her concerns in a muted palette where (deconstructed) traditional gods literally speak out in bold text to a new generation, asking questions of an often overlooked, pre-colonial past.

Multi-media and textile artist Kay George presents a series of large digital portraits on vinyl. Utilizing her personal photography, these works present an idiosyncratic collage of individual experiences of a relocated foreign culture that co-exists in a sometimes uneasy manner with the traditional values of Island life.

The combination of Sheddon (the apprentice) and Tavioni (the elder) provides a formidable video experience. Tavioni is well known within the pacific (Hawai’i included) while newcomer Sheddon after a long period of physical absence in Australia now seeks to re-establish his cultural, family and social ties in the Cook Islands.

The career of Andy Leleisi’uao is on the rise. In May 2009, a suite of his works from the series Angipani’s of the Abanimal People was purchased and gifted to the Auckland City Art Gallery following their exhibition at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art, Taiwan. The sublime sophistication, construction and delivery of his work draw the viewer into an alternate universe populated by large Janus heads that are inhabited by familiar yet fantastic creatures.

Michel Tuffery is one of the Pacific’s most recognized, international contemporary artists. He is adept at plastic arts, printing, painting and sculpture. The Bull created from corn beef tin cans is one of Tuffery’s highly acclaimed signature works. His work makes reference to intercultural trade and exchange and the consequential environmental impact on small Pacific nations.

Manuia is a structured offering. As its Cook Islands meaning implies, it is a term of sincerity. It is not a submerged statement of geographic place nor is it a product of a cultural ghetto. It is a progressive statement of contemporary art that explores themes not only relevant to Pacific societies but universal themes common to humanity. While US artist Jeff Koons addressed banality in terms of overtly glorifying everyday consumer objects, Manuia delightfully proffers a definition of banality in the form of identifying, deconstructing and obliterating persistent institutionalized definitions of pacific contemporary art. “Savages in grass skirts” are a romantic figment of the imagination, one to be revered in the paradigm of pre-Christian, Polynesian Civilization, although it is interesting to note that this premise was overtly represented in the gender subversive photographic works of Samoan- born, New Zealand artist Shigeyuki Kihara, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2008.

Three hundred years ago, the dominant European powers hurled themselves into the pacific on epic voyages of conquest, discovery and personal nirvana. In the process they created a powerful folklore of a romantic, Eden like state of fantasy, a potent aphrodisiac for a starving audience tired of the remorseless social grip of the European class elite.

The United States share some of this heritage.

So it is perhaps appropriate that we stand in America today to redefine past misconceptions and offer a clearer understanding through artistic disciplines that are common to us all.

Kia Manuia! Ben Bergman.