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Sam Tupou is one of the most exciting young artists to come out of Far North Queensland in recent years. While Rosella Namok may be stealing the national limelight at present, there is a coterie of Cairns-based artists including Tupou, Charles Street, Daniel Wallwork and Simon Poole who have shaken up the local scene in recent years as members of The Upholstery, Cairns’ self-proclaimed contemporary art collective. These artists showcased their work in The Humid Condition at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane last year, while Tupou and Street are to hold a much-anticipated joint exhibition at the Cairns Regional Gallery in mid-2006.
‘New Tapa’ is Tupou’s third solo show in Cairns in as many years, which is indicative of his local reputation, whilst numerous commissions have made his work a familiar feature around town. Credit must go to Tupou for his commercial nous, in that he embraces the free market mechanisms that at the same time he parodies in his work, and in so doing holds up a self-critical mirror to the unashamedly dollar-driven regional tourist industry.
My first encounter with Tupou’s work was in a group exhibition FNQ Souvenir at KickArts in mid-2004, in which the artist exhibited T-shirt (2003), a work comprising eighteen child-sized chesty bonds t-shirts, made of perspex and screenprinted with images of crocodiles, coral reefs, and bikini-clad babes. What I found so captivating about this composite piece was that it seemed to capture the ‘essence’ (and I use this term with a degree of circumspection) of Far North Queensland (or at least how it is perceived in the southern states). Each t-shirt could be purchased as an individual item, so you could mix-and-match your wall-drobe, an idea that acknowledges (perhaps inadvertently) a lineage from the editioned ‘multiple’, which was integral to American Pop Art in the 1960s.
Tupou recycles the tropical clichés. At times there is a nostalgic mid-20th century feel to the work, although his engagement with American Pop is intuitive, rather than a contrived post-modern appropriation. He is obviously familiar with the racketeers of the movement, Warhol, Oldenburg, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein, and one can also see the ’80s influence of Keith Haring, or closer to home the work of Howard Arkley. Like his predecessors Tupou employs a standard repertoire of images over and over again. Yet unlike Warhol, whose repetition was a megalomaniacal self-perpetuating strategy, Tupou is not so intentionally banal, although some of his all too familiar icons may soon require an extreme make over.
One interesting aspect of Tupou’s practice is that he works on perspex and pvc foamcore instead of more conventional paper or canvas. This is both a practical response to the humid tropical climate, in which works on paper in particular deteriorate rapidly, as well as a considered aesthetic approach, for as Tupou has stated, ‘using such commercial/light industrial materials allows me to further explore and portray the plasticity of western culture’.1
For me the strongest works in the exhibition are, Shake in Bro / Shake it Sis (2005) and Plastic Palms (2005), in which regional (though not parochial) subject matter is skilfully combined with more traditional compositional techniques. Shake it Bro / Shake it Sis is a diptych depicting two colourful Polynesian souvenir dolls, a male with a guitar and a female hula dancer. The screenprinted images on clear perspex panels are set about an inch out from the wall, allowing the shadows cast by the two characters to create spatial depth to the work. While there is a deliberate ‘cutesy’ feel to the imagery, Tupou’s references to stereotypical prejudices about the Pacific infuse the work with a sweet-and-sour cross-cultural conscience.
Plastic Palms is an island paradise of Lacroix pink perspex palms. The motif, derived from a similarly plastic cocktail swizzle stick, is one of the artist’s favourites, and employed in a number of works. Plastic Palms is an allusionary depiction of the tropical environment, which I believe engages with the broader landscape tradition in Australian art. Whilst the sunburnt country and arid centre have for the most part defined western perceptions of the landscape since the nineteenth century, it has only been in recent decades that alternative perspectives have received due attention, as for example William Robinson’s swirling subtropical forests. Plastic Palms is perhaps the most important work in the show, because it both encapsulates the personal particulars of what Tupou’s art is about, yet also resonates in a much wider art historical context.
On reaching the final paragraph of this review, the title ‘New Tapa’ seems somewhat of a misnomer in that Tupou’s tapa-inspired digital designs function more as infill within the works than the focal point of the exhibition. His use of well-worn images also means that there is a comfortable familiarity to these ‘new’ works, which dare I say only tentatively suggest where the artist’s work may be heading. Tupou’s practice, in its many facets, is a celebration of all that is unique about the Far North, yet at the same time his work also engages with contemporary issues that are relevant to the broader field of Australian art. Tupou is an artist to watch for the future.
1. Samuel Tupou, ‘Artist statement’, in Russell Milledge and Robert Thompson, New Tapa: new works by Samuel Tupou, KickArts, Cairns, 2005, np.