- Artist Statement
Tiki is a word I avoided much of my life. As a Polynesian, I associated Tiki with tiki kitsch that is not only impossible to avoid but must, I realized, be addressed. The abject associations of tiki kitsch sometimes makes identifying as Polynesian feel like inhabiting all the dumbed-down representations of us in movies, books, magazines, paintings, songs, cartoons, tourist items, and jokes. But to avoid tiki kitsch, that manufactured parody of our deity Tiki, is to avoid the history of Tiki himself. How can I say that tiki kitsch is not part of who I am, and indicative of something powerful in my life, that is, my political resistance and my creative process?
If I look for authenticity, I might find that such a thing doesn’t exist. From a certain kind of village people painting with cubist elements that tourists collect the world over, to conceptual art pieces in international biennials that represent identity based on the visual moment of our colonization, to popular forms of Pacific art whose standards are set in the media, the world of Pacific art today is hybrid and complicated.
Finding authenticity is not only about the objects of art—most museum collections of Pacific art are rife with fakes, and tiki kitsch began in the Western tradition of manufacturing fake Pacific art. If Western contact had happened a hundred years after the historical moment we know of, I think our basic cultures today would each be different, because our ancestors were changing all the time. Authenticity is about personal choice and understanding: it is the narrative we create and live.
I grew up in the aiga in Samoa, in my great-grandmother Fa‘asapa’s faletele, in the nu‘u, but now I live far away in time and place in a gay artists’ town in upstate New York with my partner, Stephen, and my nu‘u, such as it is, is woven in with the Internet, the telephone, the airport, the screen. My life is tiki kitsch. And my life is Tiki. [End Page 583]
Artist Notes on the Paintings
Tiki in Frozen Hell is composed of computer-altered photographs that were printed on transparent mylar, then collaged in layers on a panel, with some acrylic painting. The main photograph is from a series I took of my hands in black gloves; a finger puppet, sexual, critical, satirical, queer, and expressive; referencing sculpture, the Polynesian body, and deity. The fire circle is from an altered found postcard of Samoan fire dancing. To quote Gertrude Stein, “the figure wanders on alone,” meaning the modern condition of identity, which makes us see ourselves as mirrors of ourselves. This is a piece about memory and forgetting, a Black Orpheus.
Tired of Tourists is based on a found photograph of hula dancers from an old Honolulu newspaper, which I altered in Photoshop so that the final figure is changing into a plumeria tree. I printed it in black and white and filled in the plumeria with colored pencil; also in part of the text I left my change of mind as part of the piece, which is about desire and metamorphosis.
Fake Hula for Alien Tiki is also based on found photographs; in this case the main photograph was from a collection of pornography from the 1940s–1970s that I found on the Internet, of which this is perhaps the tamest image. Tiki kitsch pornography consists of European American women writhing in pagan ecstasy before a tiki of some sort, in this case a space alien tiki. I altered the image by adding the crown of Sauron, and images of Sala Baker, the Polynesian actor who played Sauron, and Orcs in The Lord of the Rings, a film I interpret as a form of tiki kitsch given its location in Aotearoa–New Zealand and within the history of New Zealand film.
Polynesie is a sort of collage of found images, although I painted it entirely with vinyl and oil paint on canvas. The lower two figures are from a painting by Paul Gauguin. He often used postcards from Samoa and elsewhere even while painting in Tahiti and the...