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April 26, 2004 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific

This Easter my student loan got me to New York City. I was highly fortunate that my trip to the Big Apple was on at the same time as Paradise Now?, an exhibition of art from New Zealand and the Pacific. Like a lot of New Zealand art, the pieces in this exhibition usually have a cultural or political idea behind the artwork. The works in Paradise Now? take a critical look at the Pacific and the popular conception of it being paradise. They offer an alternate view and address the issues surrounding the changing culture of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

On the way into the exhibition is KapaHaka by Michael Parekowhai. Rather fittingly, KapaHaka is a series of 15 life-size security guards. The sculptures are modelled on Parekowhai’s brother, who is a security guard and they are a humorous way of making us think about the way Maori are stereotyped. The installation Poor man, Beggar man, Thief is also by Parekowhai and blends so well into the scenery of the art gallery that you are always surprised when you come across one of the mannequins that make up the work. The Maori mannequins wear suits and name badges with the name Hori on it and are placed around the exhibition standing in corners and looking at the other art works. Like KapaHaka, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief also looks at the often negative stereotyping of Maori identity.

The same issue is also raised in Lisa Reihana’s 1997 video installation Native Portraits n. 19897. Native Portraits n. 19897 is the first thing that you see when you go into the exhibition and Reihana has arranged the video monitors in the form of a gateway. The screens display images of Maori in customary dress as well as Maori in yellow road workers’ uniforms and a whole range of other traditional and contemporary identities. By taking a both old and modern view of Maori, Reihana illustrates how Maori identity and stereotypes are changing.
Artist Michael Tuffery questions the idea of society and its closeness to nature that is normally associated with paradise and the Pacific. Tuffery’s O Le Povi Tusa Ma’ataua, which is a sculpture of a bull made out of corned beef cans riveted together, comments on the effect that western foods have had on the health of Polynesian society, in particular the introduction of foods with little nutritional value and high salt and fat contents such as canned foods. The exhibition also includes two fish sculptures made out of Brunswick cans. The use of fish also raises the point that it is easier and cheaper for Polynesians to buy canned fish rather than to catch their own, thus devastating one of their great traditions and removing them from nature.

Paradise Now? includes some of Shane Cotton’s older and more recognisable works. Cotton’s highly symbolic paintings make statements about the value of land, Maori land concerns and the impact of colonisation. Cotton’s Needle Work is one of many works that make comments about the Western approach to claiming land. Painted in earthy tones the flags of various claimants seem to pierce the small piece of land that is enclosed within a pot like container. Needle Work highlights one of the most contentious issues in Pacific society.

John Pule, although relatively unknown compared to the other artists in the exhibition, is one of the biggest standouts of Paradise Now?. His works seem reminiscent of earlier Cotton works (which could be why their pieces are not exhibited in the same room) but are far more daring and untamed. Like Cotton, Pule plays with layout and the size of objects by shrinking and enlarging them and putting them together in surreal and significant ways. Furthermore the floating red clouds are similar to the brown mountains that Cotton places on top of thin legs. However Pule’s work such as Tofua is concerned with charting the migration from Pacific Islands to larger countries like New Zealand. Although I am unsure as to why Pule’s pieces are so violent looking it has to be said that the disquieting imagery of the blood red clouds make his pieces the most powerful in the exhibition. Another strong image in Paradise Now? is Sofia Tekela-Smith’s Savage Island Man with Pure. Tekela- Smith is a jewellery designer and the photograph places the body adornment in the mouth of her husband John Pule. The way that the jewellery is placed is said to draw attention to the curves of the Polynesian face and celebrate the beauty of the Pacific Islander.

Paradise Now? aims to do for Modern New Zealand art what Te Maori did for traditional Maori art ten years ago. The exhibition is comprised of 15 artists and although all the artists can be associated with New Zealand, many of them actually originated from islands in the Pacific. Paradise Now? showcases some of the best art talent coming from this region today. Hopefully Paradise Now? will come back and be exhibited in New Zealand so that I won’t need to borrow more money off the Government to see it again.

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