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

Janet McAllister: A meaningful look at Pacific art

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Otara By Night by Rebecca Ann Hobbs, at Fresh Gallery, Otara. Photo / Supplied
Otara By Night by Rebecca Ann Hobbs, at Fresh Gallery, Otara. Photo / Supplied

Otara shopping centre last Saturday was full of high school kids using traditional Pacific lashing methods to tie plastic bottles into huge pavilions. And in the small-but-significant, council-run Fresh Gallery - celebrating 66 exhibitions in six years - Allan Tonkin of New Flava Barbers shaved patterns on the heads of kids who'd lined up for hours.

"What he does is commercial, but it's also art; it's exquisite," insists smart, livewire Ema Tavola, Fresh Gallery curator and Auckland Council Pacific arts co-ordinator.

Architecture and hairdressing: in the "mainstream" these might be considered design rather than art, but in South Auckland both these events were part of last month's Pacific Arts Summit.

The Pacific gaze, seeing art as all-inclusive and fluid, is not new. Traditionally, there was no division between "art" and "craft", as curator and artist Leafa Janice Wilson, of Samoan heritage, pointed out at a Summit "Hump Day" art talk.

Thus, counter to Oscar Wilde's "all art is useless", just because something is useful, doesn't make it non-art in a Pacific context. We're not just talking traditional kete, bowls and siapo here, but also (in Wilson's practice) things like funeral programmes and posters for a post-natal depression support group.

Western culture is broad-minded: since the Duchamp urinal, anything can be art as long as it's in a gallery. But does this mean treating nothing as art unless it's in a gallery? Instead of "is it useful or not?" the Pacific art question seems to be: "is it relevant or not?" This also covers savvy, sophisticated "fine art". Fiji-born Tavola is adamant that the work shown in the Fresh Gallery has to mean something to the people who wander in. When they see a video work shot mere metres away from the gallery, of a woman expertly performing (sexual) dancehall moves, gallery visitors want to know all about her, and staff are happy to oblige (she's a trained lawyer, an evangelical Christian, and she's gone to LA to further her career in dancing). They also discuss why it is not the dancer's artwork, but the work of video artist Rebecca Ann Hobbs.

And in the midst of the gallery's strong, fascinating and mostly exuberant exhibition WWJD? (on until June 23), Tavola placed Tonkin's magnificent barbershop chair directly in front of an anguished work by Sangeeta Singh, depicting a large fish hook crashing through a featureless face. Partially, Tavola made the placement thinking of the high Pacific youth suicide rates, in case any of Tonkin's "customers" were feeling hopeless, in spite of their smiles; letting them know they were not alone. Art powerful through its relevance.

- NZ Herald

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