Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Taking cues from the pan Pacific past

By Janet McAllister

Pool tables are part of the exhibition at Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku. Photo / Janet Lilo
Pool tables are part of the exhibition at Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku. Photo / Janet Lilo

Last Sunday morning, victim of a cruel ambush before my first coffee, I was thrashed at pool by three cue sharks masquerading as sensitive artists - Vaimaila Urale, Rangituhia Hollis and Dane Taylor. (Urale was ostensibly on my team, but I was the only one not to pot a shot.)

The speed at which I - survivor of a priggishly well-spent youth - succumbed was not unexpected. Far more interesting and surprising than the lopsided match itself was the fact we were playing in an art gallery - Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku - where a four-table pool hall has been set up for Mata Mata, a collaborative exhibition by Urale and Hollis, until February 7. (Taylor - Urale's partner and Hollis' mate from his Elam days - was just roped in for the Sunday hustle.)

The cues, intricately carved (by machine) in a variety of Pasifika and Maori motifs, are Mata Mata's focal point. Hollis and Urale studied traditional weapons in storage at Auckland Museum, and have boiled the patterns down to diagonals, triangles, koru, and raised pyramids and round bumps.

"We couldn't get over how beautiful the weapons were," says Urale. "There was even a carved musket," says Hollis. The patterns - often exchanged between island cultures, possibly via explorers and missionaries - are seen across the whole of Polynesia.

As noted earlier this year at the Pacific Arts Summit, "art" and "craft" are not traditionally divided in the Pacific. Hollis noted that decorative grooves on an axe handle would also be functional, helping with grip. Similarly, the Mata Mata pool cues are boundary bridgers. They connect art with craft; games with the gallery; earlier combat with current competition; and pan-Pacific patterns of the past with a present pastime (in a pan-Pacific suburb). They also connect usually solitary art viewers with each other. That's a heavy load for eight lightweight sticks - and they carry it very gracefully.

The cues are also a comment on how culture(s) are presented within colonial institutions. At first I found it ridiculously hard to lift a cue off its wall mount; I knew I was explicitly allowed, but the ingrained prohibition against touching artworks still made me hesitate. "Don't touch" is, of course, a sign of respect and it protects, as well as distances, the object from the viewer. Was breaking that metaphorical glass case a concern for the artists? Were they worried the pool player might not be a worthy successor to the warrior? "I didn't feel I was breaking any tapu," says Urale, "because these are mine; this is my culture, and we just wanted to share that."

In an accompanying video work, a dancing avatar (Jack Gray, whose Mitimiti was a highlight of Atamira Dance Company's Kaha in June) changes his combative actions depending on where and how the "player" faces him. "Mata mata" means "face to face"; or maybe "face off". Summer pool contest, anyone?

- NZ Herald

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