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  • Pacific Island Artists: Navigating the Global Art World
  • Katherine Higgins
Pacific Island Artists: Navigating the Global Art World, edited by Karen Stevenson. Oakland, CA: Masalai Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9714127-7-4; x + 203 pages, full color illustrations, notes, bibliography. Paper, US$69.95.

Pacific Island Artists: Navigating the Global Art World is a volume that aims to contextualize and address issues associated with contemporary Pacific art. Karen Stevenson's introduction notes that the impetus of the collection arose from sessions at the Association for Social Anthropologists in Oceania's (ASAO) conferences and developed over a number of years with input from Robert Welsh and Vilsoni Hereniko. Although some of the fifteen chapters are directly derived from the ASAO sessions, Stevenson invited other contributors including artists, a commercial gallerist, and curators to interject distinctive perspectives.

The range of prominent contributors will attract a wide audience interested in the anthropological, art historical, and commercial aspects of contemporary art in the Pacific Islands and diaspora. The collection offers a broad introduction to contemporary Pacific art for a general audience, and a number of the chapters will be of interest to an academic audience. However, several of the essays require readers to have some historical, political, and cultural background in order to appreciate topics as varied as Anna-Karina Hermkens's analysis of gender relations and barkcloth in New Guinea and Elaine Monds's account of locating, exhibiting, and selling Melanesian art in a commercial gallery on Vancouver Island. [End Page 446]

The collection is concerned with issues such as authenticity, which is addressed in the majority of chapters, perhaps most successfully by the final five chapters written by artists who seem to respond to the academic writing of the preceding chapters. For instance, Rosanna Raymond writes: "To read about yourself labeled as hybrid and having your authenticity questioned by people outside of your community left me feeling disempowered" (153). Although Stevenson introduces the central concern of authenticity, the volume would have benefited from thematic grouping of the chapters to create a sense of dialogue among the authors.

It is refreshing to have a collection of essays focused on contemporary art from Melanesia and Micronesia that also includes Aboriginal art in Australia, Pacific art outside of the region, and reflections from indigenous artists working in diasporic communities (Rosanna Raymond, Shigeyuki Kihara, Ake Lianga, and Konousi Aisake). Haidy Geismar provides a compelling launching point with an essay that draws from research in Vanuatu to distinguish the ways that ni-Vanuatu artists mediate authenticity and indigenous identity for constructive and analytic effect (10). Geismar's description of an empowered and resilient artist community in Port Vila—particularly the Nawita artist collective, which includes both male and female members—is countered by Hermkens's examination of contemporary barkcloth production in Papua New Guinea and West Papua, where barkcloth production has been transformed from being the customary responsibility of women to emerging as a male-dominated contemporary arts industry. Hermkens traces changes that have affected use and control of barkcloth, which was customarily understood as "intertwined with women's bodies, their knowledge, status, and their identity" (39). By considering past uses and recent commercialization of barkcloth, Hermkens demonstrates how "tensions between traditional and commercial values...have implications for gender relations" (35).

Pamela Rosi, one of the organizers of the ASAO sessions that prompted the collection, examines Larry Santana's art and career to provide insight into ways that contemporary artists in Papua New Guinea have developed symbols and narratives of national consciousness and identity. The focus on Santana is a welcome shift that allows readers a closer examination of the artist's struggles, successes, and prospects, both locally and internationally.

Marion Struck-Garbe also examines issues around national consciousness in Papua New Guinea, focusing on women's struggles to gain recognition and respect as contemporary artists. She asserts that while male artists often follow trends, women "tend to experiment more with materials" (134). This is an example of one of the collection's strengths: a particular attention to women artists. However, Struck-Garbe's essay raises more questions than answers. When they read it in tandem with the other chapters on Papua New Guinean...


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