- Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific
I was drawn to the recent exhibition of "Pacific" art at New York's Asia Society Galleries both because of its resonance with the thematic of Indigenous art emerging in the world and because the inclusion of New Zealand represents a new, and challenging, step for the Asia Society's geographical orientation and its usual viewers. Aside from recognizing the presence of Pacific people in New York, the exhibition is a striking expression of the fit between the practices of conceptual and performance art and the circumstances of postcolonial indigeneity and diaspora.
Sixteen years ago, the exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art at this gallery caused a fabulous stir of recognition and response throughout New York. If that exhibition addressed the question of Aboriginal cultural production as art, Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific—thoughtfully curated by Melissa Chiu, herself an Australian—has a very different, political and conceptual edge. Consisting of forty-five works by fifteen contemporary artists, the central frame of this exhibition (accompanied and illuminated by an excellent catalog) lies in the artists' engagement with influential images of the Pacific forged by eighteenth-century French and English explorers, familiar images of insular, verdant islands with friendly, uninhibited people. The artists—some residents of New Zealand, but including Māori, New Caledonian, Samoan, Fijian, Torres Strait Islander, Rotuman, and Niuean—respond in different ways to the confinements and concealments of the Paradise myth.With different particular histories, coming from different islands, they also represent an emergent "Pacific" identity in the region, one more cosmopolitan and distinct from the themes of the familiar Primitivism so vehemently rejected in critical writing over the past few decades, and also one that does not disclaim its histories.
Different strategies and tactics of engagement are employed. Some of the works play with and subvert ideas of Paradise—drawing attention to the degradation of the Pacific environment that has taken place in the wake of European attention. Others comment on the changing nature of local customs and cultures. They foreground the emerging cosmopolitanism and changing relationships to local cultures cited and distanced through the migrations that have brought so many Islanders to New [End Page 273] Zealand, where twelve of the artists were born or now live. And still others attend to the history of the region since European and US settlement—a history marked by the presence of Christianity and the extraction of resources. This Paradise is scarred and brutalized by extraction and threats to local traditions, shadowed by the pains of diaspora, and perceived through the experiences of childhood interrupted. This is post-Primitive, post-tribal art, "cutting and mixing" very different from the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, mainly springing from urban Polynesian settings and, as Karen Stevenson argues in her catalog essay, contributing significantly to the awareness of a new regional identity.
The exhibition is organized on two floors of the building. As one enters the lobby on the first floor, one passes by five models of male security guards—Pacific Islanders in black suits, in a line, arms crossed. Four more are placed to the right, along the stairs, two across the lobby, and one more positioned in front of the elevator. It is certainly impossible to ignore the presence of these figures. The work of Michael Parekowhai, the fifteen clothed, cast-fiberglass figures of Kapahaka (2003 ), transforms the usually invisible security guard into a performance—implied by the use of the word given to traditional Māori performing arts. While these seem appropriate to the heightened security typical of contemporary New York City, the wall plaques inform the viewer that these also "suggest other issues related to the protection of Maori traditions." I found them to be an appropriate connection to the famous earlier Māori exhibition, Te Maori, at the Metropolitan Museum in 1984 , which was distinguished by the presence of Māori cultural authorities and marked by Māori cultural authority itself. Indeed, like the Te Maori theme, these figures seem self-consciously to articulate the uncertainty...