island crossings

Global Arts Link, Ipswich
19 August - 12 November 2000

Island Crossings, an exhibition of contemporary Maori and Pacific art from Aotearoa (New Zealand) was curated by Giles Peterson and developed in partnership with Pacific Age Art, New Zealand. The exhibition and associated events celebrated the resilience of Maori, Samoan, and Pacific Island cultures, creating a number of links between different communities, histories and artforms. Outsiders were provided with an insight into the customs, heritage and creativity of these peoples, and were welcomed into the space as honoured guests. Island Crossings presented a diverse range of creative styles and media by seventeen contemporary Maori and Pacific artists, and in the process revealed some political, cultural and personal concerns of their communities. As the title suggests, the themes of migration and cross-cultural exchanges were of central importance to this project, and the diversity evident in the artwork was partly due to the diversity and richness of Maori and Pacific cultures, and the fusion of traditional and contemporary artforms. Wood carving, weaving, jewellery making, textiles, painting, tattooing, singing and dancing are some of the traditional creative practices that were presented through Island Crossings, with a number of artists integrating these forms with other creative practices such as installation, assemblage, video, performance, photography, sculpture and fashion.

Overall it was a powerful exhibition, although I must confess that I found the work of women artists to be especially refined and engaging. Lonnie Hutchinson, Niki Hastings-McFall, Kim Fraser and Frances Palu offered outstanding mixed media works that amalgamated traditional 'decorative' arts with contemporary fine art practices. Lonnie Hutchinson, a Samoan/Maori (Ngai Tahu) artist, reworked the traditional design of a seed-necklace, often given to visitors as a welcoming gesture, as a large wall-mounted sculpture entitled Malaga (1998). Each unit  (seed) was carved out of Kauri wood and resembled a canoe, possibly referencing the importance of water travel and trade to Samoan and Pacific Island peoples.

The ritual of an embrace and exchange of gifts, which is performed in welcoming ceremonies, was alluded to through the symbol of the seed-necklace, with the scale and spectacle of the work affirming the importance of these customs to Pacific Island cultural identities. The impact of urban existence on the identity and imagination of Maori and Pacific artists was indicated through the materials and content of several artists' work. In particular, the Urban Lei Series (2000) by Samoan/European New Zealand artist, Niki HastingsMcFall, adopted the form and methods of traditional lei making, yet substituted the flowers and organic materials customarily used, with artificial mass-produced materials. Adhering to the rule of repeated pattern and motif, Hastings-McFall produced a series of beautiful leis out of discarded materials that usually add to land fill , such as plastic sushi fish, milk bottles, drafting 'paper' and weedeater nylon. Deceptively simple in appearance, these elegant works were displayed to their best advantage by being suspended in the window spaces at Global Arts Link. Urban Lei Series combined organic forms with industrial materials, symbolically representing the urbanization of natural habitats and the fusion of different cultures and environments. Perhaps the artist was exploring what it means to occupy several cultural spaces at once and the necessity for Pacific Island people to negotiate metropolitan living and traditional values or cultural practices.

Another work by Hastings-McFall included in the exhibition, The coming of the light: Malie! Malie! Malie! (2000) used modern manufactured materials to reference an ancient myth about Sina, a young woman lost at sea who was guided to shore by a shark. She renamed the shark 'Malie' in recognition of its help. 'Malie' in Samoan means 'to thank' and also is the name given to sharks. Road-sign reflector tape, perspex, fishing line and sinkers were used to create a seven-strand shark mobile. Skilful lighting resulted in the sharks casting shadows and reflecting light onto the wall, giving one the impression of watching sharks swim underwater. The gentle mood of this work in combination with the legend, illustrated an essential difference between how Westerners view sharks (as instinctdriven, dangerous predators) and how Samoan people view them (as intelligent creatures and possible guides for navigation). A respectful relationship with nature and the ocean was suggested through this work, acknowledging the long history of reliance on the sea for food, commerce, travel and creative inspiration.

An aspect of the overall project instigated by Global Arts Link was the Community Room - a room that reflected the homes of Samoan Australian families. As a community- based project it successfully created a welcoming space for visitors to enter, while signifying the importance of family, history and cultural identity in shaping ideas of personal identity. Flowers, necklaces, leis, family photos, trophies, shells, grass mats, wood carvings and tapa cloths bought into the gallery by local Samoan people, adorned the furnished room. Sounds of water lapping at a shore, birds singing and children playing resounded in the background evoking a romantic association with the ocean, beach and family life. The contents of this installation indicated ways in which migrant communities take symbols of their 'home' culture with them and integrate these signs into their new environments. The past is never completely erased, with residues of histories, mythologies, memories and customs reforming through cultural intersection and personal transformation. In contrast to Western practices of separating art from everyday life, both symbolically and physically (via gallery/museum institutions), this room was evidence that art and creativity are considered to be integral to the lives of Maori and Pacific families and communities.

Island Crossings explored the impact that migration, colonisation and globalisation have had on Maori and Pacific Island communities, identities and creative practices. lt traced individual journeys of transformation, noting the interaction of different cultural influences on the working processes of participating artists, while also indicating that these artists have developed their own sign systems for representing their living, changing cultures and identities. Island Crossings affirmed that contemporary Maori and Pacific art is changing and hybridising as a result of cultural exchanges and experiences of migration, and that artists find themselves negotiating the flow between the past, present and future.