Curated by Joycelin Leahy
Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery, 3 June –12 July, 2009
Waterfront Place, Foyer 1 Eagle St, Brisbane, 14 December 2009 – 2 January, 2010
reviewed by PRUE AHRENS
UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND
It's surprising how few exhibitions of contemporary Pacific art are held in Australia. Travel to Vanuatu or Tjibaou Cultural Centre and its clear there's a thriving art scene in the islands, not far from Australian shores and actively engaging with issues that are common to all nations in the Australian Pacific region. Pacific Storms has thundered through this silent space, curated by Joycelin Leahy and displayed in Queensland in
Figure 1. Young Pacific Islanders at the opening. Photographer: Rae Smart.
2009. The exhibition brings together contemporary artists from nine Pacific Island nations and the assembly demonstrates the crucial role of the Pacific Arts Alliance to facilitate contemporary art exhibition and foster the development of the arts broadly in the region. Some of the artists exhibited in Pacific Storms are living in the islands, others are based in Australia, but the distinction isn't emphasised and the effect is one of shared concerns. Australia's connection to the Pacific is underscored by Leahy's choice of venue for the first exhibition of Pacific Storms at Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery. In the late nineteenth century, Bundaberg was a site of the (mostly) illegal recruitment of Islanders who had been 'black birded' to labour in sugar cane fields. On this historically-charged site, an empowered Pacific hails through contemporary aesthetics.
The contemporary aesthetics of the exhibition challenge any views on how the Islands should be represented. New mediums of acrylic paint, mixed media, photography and installation present new aesthetics far removed from motifs, patterns or colours historically produced by natural resources in local supply. Eric Bridgeman's inkjet prints of 'Black Mary Gappa' and 'Lik Lik Mary Muffat' are saturated with synthetic colour. Together with heightened resolution and overtly stylised compositions, Bridgeman creates an aesthetic which belongs to a global media culture. It follows that Bridgeman's subject destabilises any pre-existing concept of a 'Pacific woman', playfully presenting a mishmash of racial stereotypes from around the world to poke fun at foreign assumptions about Pacific women.
Figure 2. Audience at the Opening in Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery. Photographer: Rae Smart.
Figure 3. Curator and Pacific Art Alliance Fijian artists. Photographer: Rae Smart.
Other works in the exhibition appear to resemble some European painting styles. Traces of cubism, for example, might be seen in the work of Peter Leo Ella from Papua New Guinea, or the irrational juxtapositions of surrealism might be detected in Jeffry Feeger's 'Transition'. And this kind of appreciation might not be so poorly judged, after all a number of the artists exhibited in Pacific Storms were formally trained in Australian or international art colleges. But this approach reduces the pleasurable challenge of viewing new aesthetics to simplistic comparisons with international art. To enjoy and appreciate the art in Pacific Storms what is required is a singular engagement with each artwork and some understanding of the context in which it was produced.
Figure 4. PaaCaa artists – background is Jeffry Feeger's work – Transition. Photographer: Rae Smart.
While climate change is an urgent threat in the contemporary Pacific, storms are indiscriminate, and the art contained within Pacific Storms rages across twenty-first century island cultures, lashes out at globalisation, security, social tensions and leaves changed landscapes in its wake. The one constant in the social, political, environmental and economic contexts of the islands is change. And that is an ever-increasing rate of change. Mairi Feeger's work depicts the multiple channels of change that flow through media, technology and global communication, and are constantly reforming identity in Papua New Guinea. Winnie Weoa focuses on climate change in 'Relocation' and the insidious threat of HIV/AIDS in 'The Virus'. Peter Leo Ella depicts the effects of urbanisation and Chris Kauage paints the corrupting influences of modernity in Papua New Guinea. Change may come through Christian faith, as described in Abraham Lagi's Fijian canvasses, or through social awareness of issues like domestic violence, as in Laben Sakale's 'Wife-beating'. If only one image could speak for the contemporary Pacific it might be Daniel Waswas' 'Shifting of Mindset'. This is a large, mixed media canvas that incorporates text and image – literally spelling out the need for spectators to 'open our minds' and 'take a new attitude' to our expectations and understandings of Pacific art.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue which offers a straight-forward and accessible guide to the specific concerns of the artists represented. Further information on the exhibition and catalogue is available at Beyond Pacific Art.
Photo Gallery and Artists' Comments from Pacific Storms.
Mal Meninga's Speech at the Opening of Pacific Storms in Brisbane.