native coconut

margaret aull, leilani kake and cerisse palalagi
Fresh Gallery Otara, Auckland
18 June - 10 July 2010

Fresh Gallery Otara is a small but feisty community gallery in Manukau City, where the Pacific Island demographic is the highest in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world. Spearheaded by Ema Tavola, Manukau City Council Pacific Arts Coordinator and curator of Native Coconut, Fresh is targeted specifically to cater for the local community.

To celebrate Matariki, the Māori New Year, Tavola corralled artists of dual Māori and Pacific Island heritage. Choosing artists who walk in two worlds, she sought to bridge the gaps that exist between indigenous and migrant communities, and the three selected artists created a visual dialogue around these issues.

Matariki is a star-gazing festival which is about the return of the Pleiades to the horizon after an hiatus. And stars feature in the video work of Leilani Kake (Cook Islands/Nga Puhi, Tainui) and in the painting of Margaret Aull (Fiji/Te Rarawa, Tuwharetoa). Aull’s Tino Rangatiratanga and Coups (2010) addresses both the Māori struggle for sovereignty, and the endless coups in Fiji, in a broken composition that is part flag, part museum display case, with fragmented artifacts subjected to colonial categorisation and branding.

Cerisse Palalagi’s Walk it Owt (2010) is a large painting on thick paper referencing barkcloth/tapa or in this case, hiapo, as Palalagi’s affiliations are Niuean, with Te Arawa and Ngaiterangi on her Māori side. Niuean painter John Pule popularised the contemporary riff on hiapo in the early 1990s, and was recently the subject of a survey exhibition at City Gallery, Wellington. To compliment Pule’s canonical status, Palalagi represents the next generation of Niuean art in her concurrent solo show ‘Motunei’ at City Gallery. Walk it Owt is more of the same: big and bold, combining screenprinting with painting, and graffiti aesthetics with the structural grids and patterns of Pacific barkcloth tradition, only the hot pinks and oranges of Motunei were here replaced with red, black and white, to honour the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

Palalagi literally likens tagging to the act of mark-making on barkcloth, by screenprinting graff-writing pens onto canvas, each of which bears the logo ‘Hiapo Marker’. And indeed, the whole painting is covered in a tagged stream-of-consciousness, with moments of poetry such as: ‘GOT.MY.SHINE.ON.REAL.NON.CHALANT’ or savvy humour, for instance, ‘GLOBAL.LOCAL. SAVAGES’. Like Aull, Palalagi is playing with the structure of the colonial flag, and yet, the resulting hybrid is anything but bounded by colonial histories, rather it is an irruptive expression of border-crossing beauty.

Finally, Kake’s new video works all but dominated the show with their various permutations: on monitors in the front window, projected on the back wall, and as framed stills. There were essentially two new works here, Kia Ora 2 Kia Orana (2010) and Te Hononga Mokowa (2010) both utlising the same concept. Kake starts off with a word on screen, say the Māori greeting ‘Kia Ora’. Using editing technology, she manipulates the word, putting it through a range of contortions until letters are no longer visible. Instead, patterns of extraordinary intensity have been generated via a few simple commands, and digital barkcloth unfolds before our eyes. Eventually, however, a discernible word emerges again, this time, Kia Orana, the Cook Islands version of the same greeting, so similar, yet different. It is as though Kake’s video presents a voyage through that space-between, perhaps mapping her own DNA, via some kind of psychedelic Polynesian trip.

There are many influences at play here. Kake acknowledges the abstract animations of the ‘direct film’ pioneer Len Lye, but it is Cook Island filmmaker Veronica Vaevae’s homage to Lye that I am reminded of. Vaevae animated photocopies of barkcloth using clear film in the early 1990s. And of course, Lisa Reihana played with multi-channel black and white pattern and movement in Tauira (1991). In 2005, Reuben Paterson created a Māori baroque animation, Te Putahitanga o rehua, featuring tunneling vortexes of black and white—kowhaiwhai on hyperdrive. Amongst Kake’s black and white whorls and zigzags, the art of the paper-cut also emerges as a reference, and I am reminded of Lonnie Hutchinson’s work with builder’s paper and positive/negative space.

Finally, in watching Kake’s Te Hononga Mokowa which combines text and pattern with footage of the artist cutting open a coconut with a machete, I could not help but think of Afro-American artist Rico Gatson’s Jungle Jungle (2001), in which the original King Kong, featuring grossly stereotyped ‘savages’, is remixed through a filter which renders the whole work as a kaleidoscopic tapacloth of colonial relations.

In all three artists’ work in Native Coconut, text and pattern are in the process of morphing, forming a new lexicon with which to articulate experience. These experiences run the gamut from traditional heritages to contemporary technologies and idioms, and they are all woven (or in the case of barkcloth, beaten!) together, into new, exhilarating forms.