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Reviewed by:
  • Island Affinities: Contemporary Art of Oceania
  • Adria L Imada
Island Affinities: Contemporary Art of Oceania. Art Galleries, California State University, Northridge. 29 January-1 March 2007.

Disparagingly told that Pacific Island art would never secure an exhibit at prestigious venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, painter and multimedia artist Jewel Castro responded by curating her own shows of diasporic Oceanic art. Castro's latest curatorial effort is "Island Affinities: Contemporary Art of Oceania," highlighting the work of fourteen Pacific Islander artists from island and diasporic locations like Papua New Guinea, London, and Orange County. It is the second significant art exhibit in Southern California in the past two years, following Castro's curatorial debut, "Turning Tides: Gender in Oceania Art," a smaller exhibit held at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD) Graduate Art Gallery in February 2006.

Unlike New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, or the United Kingdom, where Pacific Islanders have realized solo or group shows at private galleries and state-sponsored museums, the US continent has not afforded contemporary Pacific Island art significant visibility. Although 260,000 of the nation's one million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live in California (the second largest segment after Hawai'i), Pacific Islander artists working here face a "space and time" obstacle: they are perceived as being too far removed from the islands and as using aesthetic practices that are either too "modern" or too "traditional."

Yet Castro and other artists featured in this exhibit are concerned with reaching through time and space to reconcile Pacific Island artistic practices and forms with the realities and temporality of contemporary life, whether in American Sämoa or Oakland, California. A granddaughter of the founder of the Samoan Congregational Church in San Diego, Castro's [End Page 277] background illustrates the trajectory of other diasporic Islander artists. She was formally trained in painting within a metropolitan art center—earning an MFA in studio art from University of California–San Diego under the direction of eminent African American painter Faith Ringgold—but is keenly interested in exploring histories of off-island settlement and her own family's arrival in Southern California in the 1950s.

While this exhibit and its predecessor provided opportunities to invite larger audiences, they have more importantly opened up conversations among artists who are grappling with similar ideas on different continents and islands. Some of the artists met at meetings of the Pacific Arts Association, where discussions turned to creating Oceanic artistic languages. As Castro explained to me (interview, 15 Feb 2007), "Many of us use traditional arts to figure out where we were in the past and where we're going in the future." Reggie Meredith and Tupito Gadalla, for example, rework Samoan siapo (bark cloth) into mixed media pieces (photo 1), while Filipe Tohi interprets Tongan lalava (sennit lashings) as modernist rock and wood sculptures. But artists are also using contemporary artistic forms like photography, video art, and theatrical installations to explore the past.

Anne Keala Kelly's short video, Wish You Were Here, layers audio news reports about the desecration of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) remains by commercial development, along with images shot from the point of view of a grave. Shigeyuki Kihara's large-format photographic portraits in her series, "Fa'a Fafine: In the Manner of a Woman," are stunning and sophisticated reconstructions of nineteenth-century colonial postcards, with the artist posed as a fa'a fafine (transgendered male) in place of the iconic bare-breasted Samoan woman. Along with Kihara's series of portraits, Castro's installation Red House, the Daughters of Salamasina is the most impressive artistic achievement, anchoring the rest of the individual pieces. A brilliant red sanctuary merging generations of Samoan women, Red House invites us into an interior where the most ancient of these women convene. They are like red islands sitting stoically in an ocean, suggesting that Samoan women are connected through water, despite the passing of time and migration to points afar.

Given the lack of sustained institutional support for contemporary Pacific Island art in California, exhibits are necessarily collaborative and experimental. For "Turning Tides," Castro wrote grants...


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