Put down that mai tai.
The 13 artists participating in Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific, currently on view at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, want you to know there’s more to the idyllic Pacific Islands than hula skirts, cheap drinks and pristine beaches.
Paradise Lost? represents the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuata. Acknowledging the past but looking forward to the future too, these 13 internationally acclaimed artists use sculpture, weaving, painting and photography to explore cultural heritage issues, migration and diaspora.
New Zealander George Nuku leads the assault with two specific works he created expressly for the exhibition. Trained in Maori carving, Nuku toiled away in the Museum’s workshop for four months using unique, if unconventional, materials – plastics and Styrofoam – to capture the symbols and patterns associated with his Maori ancestry. Nuku is represented in over 30 European collections. He makes no apologies for embracing modern technology.
“I take the tradition and innovate,” he says. “My ancestors came in a world of trees and did everything from the trees: houses, canoes. We continue to use it but we do not live in a world of trees any more. The job of the artist is to create a true reflection of life now. That is why I use polystyrene, a material of this time.”
Nuku’s centerpiece, Universal Cube, is a giant Styrofoam construction he created in collaboration with Canadian aboriginal sculptor Cory Douglas. With a Haida face on one side and Maori decoration on the other it speaks of the Great Creator and underscores the affinity Nuku shares with Canada’s original peoples.
“They have been colonized for four hundred years, and we Maoris, for two hundred years,” he says. “We are striving for equal society opportunities. Equality under the law and in society.”
It’s no coincidence that Universal Cube hangs suspended from the ceiling enveloped by a forest of totems.
With his second installation, The World of Light, Nuku asked for and received the Museum’s discarded plastic display cases, boxes the Museum was going to throw out, and transformed them into intricate designs using drills and chemicals. Look closely and you’ll see a Maori mask. Look again and it becomes an intricate abstract pattern. Sitting in a light well overlooking the countryside, these etchings change colour and character depending upon the time of day. The setting and the material plays into Nuku’s philosophy of inter-connectivity. “The beauty of transparent acrylic,” he says “is that it doesn’t overpower what is already there.”
Other Pacific artists have expanded upon the idea of melding the old with the new. Te Rongo Kirkwood has reproduced a Maori ceremonial cloak in glass, turning it from an artifact into a piece of sculpture. Ralph Regenvanu of Vanuatu has incorporated regional images – stylized statuary and the dramatic Vanuatan landscape – into a vibrant, surrealist painting. Look closely and there isn’t a mai tai in sight.
Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific at Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver ends on 29th September 2013