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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Pacific Bodies

Pacific Bodies is a video series of five episodes, available to watch on the Auckland Art Gallery’s various online platforms. As they put it, “Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki together with British Council New Zealand invited local artists of Pacific heritage to offer a counter-narrative to the themes of our current exhibition The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from the Tate.” Artists featured include Rosanna Raymond, Ioane Ioane, Ema Tavola, Leilani Kake, Nanai Tolovae Jr., Te Iwihoko Te Rangihirawea, Jimmy Vea, Michel Mulipola, Ali Cowley, and Tanu Gogo. The videos are short, about five minutes each, but manage to provide personal responses to notions of the nude in art and in the Pacific, criticisms of Western frameworks that dictate our understandings of the body and what it might represent, and insights into each artist’s own practice and cultural heritage. Overwhelmingly, the interviews assert the need for Pacific realities and histories to be represented within institutions like Auckland Art Gallery in a way, as Ema Tavola puts it, “that is safe, that is meaningful for all parties, and that is mutually beneficial.”

It’s difficult to distill each artist’s individual body politics into a five minute video, and difficult again to try and account for them within 600 words. The series leaves a lot to be desired, specifically in terms of acting as a “counter-narrative” to an exhibition of around 100 artworks, because it has not been granted the physical presence so many of the videos attest to the need for. Rather, it is the intangible presence of an absence that is being acknowledged by the gallery in commissioning this series. Having said that, the series remains accessible to audiences across Aotearoa and the Pacific despite the exhibition having been packed up and shipped back to the Tate, and so has the chance to long outlive the exhibition proper.  

Often the series seems to ask for more of the gallery than it has been granted. Rosanna Raymond, who features in episode one, speaks of visiting galleries with her mother as a child and being totally unrepresented. The question raised but left unanswered is whether or not a young Samoan girl could have walked into The Body Laid Bare and found a figure she could identify with. Tanu Gago, photographer and co-founder of FAF SWAG, who features in the final episode of the series, said in conversation with Anthony Byrt for Metro in March that “[FAF SWAG] realised that the challenge of inclusion and participation and diversity is actually to come into the centre, and to operate in a way that is still authentic and meaningful to [our] cultural space, but has the visibility to reach a wider audience.” He elaborates on that in Pacific Bodies, speaking to a need for the realities of young, LGBTQ+ Pacific peoples to be brought to the forefront of the public consciousness in order for the general population to understand what they need from us to ensure that their futures thrive. The point the series makes, it seems, is that it itself is not, cannot be, enough.

Pacific Bodies leaves you wanting: wanting for the gallery to allow itself to be truly and physically decentralised by the artists whose voices it has brought to the fore; wanting for a longer conversation; wanting for a chance to experience the works we see so briefly on screen in real life. The series, in making present the absence, marks the need for something more.

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