Swimming into The Future

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Enter the old gymnasium of what was once a Sydney psychiatric hospital, and all the cliches and stereotypes of Pacific paradise are quickly confirmed: a grass-skirted hula dancer serenades a wall of bright-colored floral leis to the languorous strains of Hawaiian steel guitar. And then just as quickly they are exploded: the hula figure is in fact a motorized metal mannequin with a grinning Chesty Bond head. The leis hang from 20 artificial sex-shop penises. And the steel guitar segues into the tune of Waltzing Matilda. Exploring the sexual repression that came with the missionaries and the commercialism brought by Western trade, SamoanŠ New Zealand artist John Ioane's installation Poly Wants a Cracker, 2002, certainly pushes the envelope of Pacific art.

It's the talking point of "Pacific Notion" (at the Sydney College of Arts Gallery through April 12), an altogether eye-opening exhibition which has already traveled to New York City with the aim of repositioning Pacific art internationally. "There seems to be something of the Western view of the art world in trying to keep artists in the traditional space," says Fijian-New Zealand curator Deborah White, whose Melbourne-based Pacific Artspace toured the show to Columbia University's Macy Gallery in February. For mid-career artists Ioane, Lily Aitiu Laita, Andy Leleisi'uao, Niki Hastings McFall and Filipe Tohi, "it's just not where they're at at all, and neither should they be."

All but Tongan-born Tohi hail from the Pacific melting pot of Auckland, New Zealand, the educated first generation of Polynesian migrants. In many respects they are like contemporary artists everywhere-"teaching and loving and paying bills, the usual," says Ioane. But they draw on their mixed ancestry in unique and dynamic ways. "I get really bored with work that just appropriates the past without actually questioning or evolving or changing," says McFall, who has an English mother and Samoan father. "To me that doesn't do contemporary Pacific art any favors because it just puts you right back in that ethnographic past tense, where you're stuck in a bell jar. So I think you've got to move on and talk about the present and to tie the two together, because things never stay static."

Drawing the eye through the Sydney exhibition spaces, McFall's modern street-sign assemblages echo the rhythms of traditional Samoan carving and tapa cloth. "I was looking at taking the material culture of the past and translating them into the present by using patterns from my urban environment," says the artist. The navigation signs reach their apotheosis in her latest series "The Coming of the Light," where they form a huge Christian cross. Powerfully ambiguous, The Road to Hell, 2002, flashes red, suggesting both a culture in flames and spiritual strength. With the coming of the missionaries, says McFall, "it's almost like Samoans have colonized Christianity. It's a really interesting interface between the two cultures."

Less ambiguous are the violent canvases of former factory worker Andy Leleisi'uao. His expressionistic figures, some of whom are the victims of youth suicide and race hate, sprout power sockets from their foreheads, as if they were but colonial appliances ready to be plugged in and used up. In A Taste of Brown, 2001, he depicts the boxes of perception that have kept many Pacific migrants in their place: factory worker, prone to drinking, prone to violence. Bursting out of his own box of anger, Leleisi'uao finds an almost hallucinogenic peace in the Polynesian dreamscape of Fairies of Nalo, 2002, a kind of endearingly trippy troppo.

Quieter and more spiritual, Tohi's large-scale timber sculptures follow the lashing pattern of Tongan la lava work, twine bindings that decorated traditional houses and canoes, to construct the square and diamond creation symbols of man and woman. Together in the gallery space they seem to breathe as one. While Tohi trained as a carver with a Maori cooperative on coming to New Zealand, a journey back to Tonga in 1987 reacquainted him with the ancient coral monuments of his homeland. "The Tongans were great masons and those structures are probably some of the great wonders of the Pacific," Tohi has said. "Those stones give you a feeling of settlement, they give a foothold, like an anchor stone." The artist's small-scale stone carvings of Otua (God) and Matua (anchor) carry a sublimely gentle force.

For Lily Aitiu Laita, of mixed Maori and Samoan ancestry, the past is also an anchor. Hot, fragrant and seductively layered, her semi-abstract canvases seem to emerge from an ancestral darkness. Here time, space, the personal and the political melt (democracy is a foreign flower, she scrawls across After Westminster, 2001), all of which evoke the Samoan concept of va. "It refers to that time between night and day when people dream and creativity is supposed to be at its peak," says curator White. "It's in the spirit world; the time between the past and the present." Reclaiming a darker paradise, these contemporary Pacific artists are bold messengers for the future.

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