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  • About the Artist: Lemi Ponifasio
  • Moana Nepia

About the Artist: Lemi Ponifasio

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Photo by Christian Westerback

Lemi Ponifasio is a theater director, New Zealand Arts Laureate, tufuga, and Samoan high chief; he has been described as a profound visionary whose work transcends genres to redefine the power of art. In 1995 he founded MAU, a theater company and creative forum for collaborative engagement among artists, scholars, community leaders, and activists. MAU now regularly performs in the most prestigious international arts festivals.

While exploring themes of universal significance, works such as Tempest: Without a Body and Birds With Skymirrors also draw attention to issues of current concern in the Pacific. When Māori activist Tame Iti performed in MAU’s production of Tempest: Without a Body (2007), themes of power, oppression, and increasing state control in a post-9/11 world gained potency through Iti’s physical presence, his association with protests over crown confiscation of Ngai Tuhoe tribal land, and detention following unlawful 2007 New Zealand Police raids into Tuhoe communities made under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. In Birds With Skymirrors (2009), the intricacy, swiftness, and precision of Kiribati dance movement, Māori poi, and Samoan slap dance resonated with haunting strains of karanga (ancestral Māori calls), mechanical drone, and breath, [End Page vi] within a world of sensual detail, spatial depth, and shadows. Made after Ponifasio had seen frigate birds in Tarawa flying with glittering magnetic videotape in their beaks, this work evoked the sense of uncertainty many Pacific Islanders feel (including some of the artists within the MAU company) when confronting the effects of climate change—rising sea levels, loss of land, and threats to cultural integrity.

Seeking to provoke conversations between artists, communities, and audiences in global contexts, Ponifasio is concerned that his work not be constrained through labeling it as “Pacific,” “Oceanic,” or “indigenous.” Resisting such categorization, Ponifasio imbues his work with reference to multiple histories and philosophical, cultural, and spiritual traditions. For audience members aware of the complexities of Samoan participation in Völkerschauen (nineteenth-century touring exhibitions), the Samoan MAU revolt against German and New Zealand occupation, and Pacific responses to Christianity (including the Ringatu or Ratana religious movements in Aotearoa), the fact that Ponifasio is equally at home reading Heidegger, Shakespeare, or Greek mythology, while producing work for global consumption, may come as no surprise. Theater in an expanded realm of global consciousness is not only about representation but also about provocation—challenging us to consider the limits of our collective and creative imagination. [End Page vii]

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Bone Flute (2000). Photo courtesy of MAU.

Concept, choreography, direction by Lemi Ponifasio; light by Helen Todd; music by Hirini Melbourne, Lemi Ponifasio, and Marc Chesterman; performers Ioane Papalii and Peresetene Afato.

In a series of shows grouped under the title Bone Flute, Ponifasio worked with Hirini Melbourne, a Māori composer and taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments) expert. For performances at the 2000 Festival of Pacific Arts in New Caledonia, Ponifasio collaborated with performers from a Māori maurakau (traditional Māori weaponry) group from Waikato and Whitireia Community Polytechnic in Porirua. Bone Flute ivi ivi was then presented by the Adelaide Festival 2002.

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Stones In Her Mouth (2013). Photo by Zan Wimberley, Carriageworks, Sydney.

Concept, choreography, and direction by Lemi Ponifasio; light by Helen Todd; mōteatea (Māori chant) composition by Ria Te Uira Paki, Te Ara Vakaafi, Rangipo Wallace-Ihakara, and Mere Boynton; sound by Sam Hamilton and Lemi Ponifasio; performers Kasina Campbell and Ria Te Uira Paki.

Stones In Her Mouth premiered in Los Angeles in 2013 and features ten Māori women as transmitters of life force through oratory, ancient chants, choral work, and dance. About this work, Ponifasio commented in an interview with Hannah McKee in the Dominion Post (Wellington, 3 April 2014): “I’ve always wanted to make this work and find a way of relating with women—especially Maori women—so the work is really about their power and beauty and not Maori song and dance or...


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