Contemporary arts of the South Pacific

Lissant Bolton

Works by contemporary artists of the Pacific islands are rarely seen in Australia. A recent exhibition at the Alliance Francaise de Sydney from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji was therefore a special occasion, made more so by the fact that most of the twenty five artists represented attended the opening, having been brought to Australia by the School of Applied and Performing Arts of the University of New South Wales (St George campus). In addition to contributing to the exhibition, the artists held a series of seminar days at the exhibition venue, at which they discussed their work.
The terms in which the organisers defined contemporary Pacific art related to the medium of expression. That is, this art is produced within the framework of western art forms and materials, rather than within indigenous artistic traditions. The exhibition displays pen and ink drawings, watercolours, oils on canvas, prints, tapestries, carvings and pottery. The most interesting works in the exhibition are those which blend traditional techniques or styles with western materials. The pen and ink drawing with colour wash by Micheline Neporan from New Caledonia, for example, depicts figures and scenes in the same style as that used to incise bamboo pipes from New Caledonia. Both the drawings on the pipes, and Neporan's work, have great liveliness and charm. The exhibition also displays several very fine pots by Mary Gole, from Papua New Guinea, which develop and elaborate traditional forms.
The status of indigenous culture is an issue which exercises most of the artists involved in the exhibition. As they explore the potential of new materials most of the artists choose to depict traditional life to a greater or lesser extent. Artists such as Taba Silau from Papua New Guinea, and Joseph John from Vanuatu, depict people in customary dress performing various traditional practices; their art explores the status of past practices in the present, through the new media of oils and watercolours respectively. The most unusual relation between medium and traditional subject is in the works of Eric Natuoivi, from Vanuatu. Natuoivi's gourd-like burnished posts rise to a central point out of which a group of wood and boar's tusk constructions emerge, like stems from a narrow mouthed vase. In the arrangement of these stems, and in the bas-relief designs on the pot, Natuoivi depicts issues such as the changing structure of kinship relations on his home island of Futuna, or, as in the piece named "Moli", grades in the ranked pig-killing system on the Vanuatu island of Pentecost. This is an entirely original material expression of these ideas, in a new form. Pottery is not traditionally made on Futuna.
The exhibition was opened by the Honourable Sethy Regenvanu, Deputy Prime Minister of Vanuatu, and Minister of Justice, Culture and Women. Regenvanu spoke about the importance of art in the Pacific, outlining how, in the past, art was integral to the rituals which attended an individual through life, and symbolised the connection of people to place. Today, he said, the arts give identity, through them people know their origins and their place in a multicultural world. This exhibition grants an Australian audience the opportunity to observe these artists as they develop new art styles which express their contemporary Pacific identities.