T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: People of the sea

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The High Chief and his Subjects by Shigeyuki Kihara.
The High Chief and his Subjects by Shigeyuki Kihara.

A major exhibition and smaller gallery show celebrate our emerging Pacific nationhood.

When launching a splendid book on the late Pat Hanly last week at the Auckland Art Gallery, former Prime Minister Helen Clark remarked that his vividly colourful painting filled with bright light was typical of the nation we are becoming - a Pacific nation.

The gallery's own exhibition, Home AKL, is a rich example of the way artists from the Pacific region living in Auckland have broadened and intensified the feeling that we are "a Pacific nation".

The single most powerful traditional work in the show is an immense tapa cloth by the Tongan Women's Barkcloth Making Collective, so big that only half of it is displayed on the wall. This cloth has a huge rectangle of black with dark red lines at top and bottom. The black is a prized pigment made from the soot of the candlenut. The tapa cloth confers on this black a subtle texture that intensifies its depth. It has the same effect as a painting by Rothko - it creates a space so dark and deep that it has a strong emotional effect.

There is also much that is colourful, like the traditional woven circles of pattern, notably by Foufili Halagigie and Lakilolko Keakea. The paintings of Teuane Tibbo, who back in the 1960s enhanced the local art scene with her naive paintings drawn from the memory of her life in the islands, also shows flair for colour and pattern. A painting of fish on a coral reef is particularly delightful.

Another pioneer whose paintings have a cultivated sense of colour suggesting both light and natural plant life is Paul Tangata. He was the first person from the Pacific to graduate from Auckland University's Elam School of Art, though went on to have a political career that sadly did not include any art.

Painting is not as prominent in this show as might be expected, given the output in Auckland, but there is room for work by John Pule and the intensively emotional style of Andy Leleisi'uao. The anecdotal, satirically bitter work of Siliga Setoga is painted dialogue but sharply real to the school situation it describes.

The show features a strong emphasis on video and photography. The beaches of the Pacific are recalled in a projection on to sand by the late Jim Vivieaere. Another work, projected on to the floor, by Leilani Kake has a touching symbolism as an adolescent boy endeavours to keep his head above water in a way that demands constant movement.

Elizabeth Amituanai's photos taken from the end of her driveway of school pupils on their way to and from school give the feeling of walking between two worlds.

Strangest of all is a group of stylish photos by Shigeyuki Kihara presented like a shoot for a fashion magazine that elevates Pacific models to the status of royalty by wearing clothes with elements of Pacific style and heavy jewellery based on traditional craft. Look for the ubiquitous Oscar Kightley in High Chief and his Subjects.

Equally startling but very powerful are the documentary photos of traditional tattoo in self-portraits by Greg Semu, while a major piece of carving by Ioane Ioane done on a huge slab of swamp kauri has a vibrant surface vigorously cut in a wave shape. A tiny house in the hollow of the kauri shows the smallness of human activity against time and nature.

A video by Jeremy Leatinu'u wittily records him walking down the centre line of a main road imperilled by the bustle of the city. Its symbolism is indicated by the title, Tight Rope.

An impressive sculpture by Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi should find its permanent place in the reflecting pool at the entrance to the gallery. It is a monument in stainless steel to the skills of weaving.

The Pacific is also the source of material for Elizabeth Thomson's exhibition The Ocean of Eden at Two Rooms.

She was one of a group of artists who went to the Kermadec and Raoul Islands. From the sea around the Kermadec she has been inspired by the shimmer of water and the deep blue of the ocean, while the volcano of Raoul has led to works of an intense fiery red.

Ever inventive in technique, she has used the richness of the experience to make works embodying materials that make a play with light. A number of the works overlay an image with a surface of thousands of tiny glass spheres. In the works called Ocean of Eden the images under the spheres are enlargements of microscopic material. These suggest many things from micro-organisms to seaweed and rock. The same technique is equally enchanting in glittering and shifting shades of red in the group of works called Caldera.

The swell of the ocean is caught in Kermadec, a symphony in waves of deep blue with hollows moulded into the support that emphasise the surface.

The artist comes ashore with a group of blocky relief sculptures covered with tight concentrations of vivid algae and lichens and in her familiar leaf forms moulded in zinc.

- NZ Herald

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