Polynesian performances star in Pacific ethKnowcentrix at October Gallery

By Anne Field | 15 September 2009

Exhibition: ethKnowcentrix, The October Gallery, London, until October 10 2009

Chili Hawes, Director of international avante-garde artists' haunt The October Gallery, has always supported Polynesian artists, but ethKnowcentrix is her first show of forces from New Zealand.

Featuring four leading lights from Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands, the exhibition aims to explore the ethnographic gaze through a mix of visual artwork and performances, and to confront and reciprocate Western views towards these cultures. The works all reflect a somewhat exoticised concept of Polynesians and native New Zealanders.

A picture of a photo of a man in a suit with tribal signs painted on his face

Lisa Reihana, Dandy. Digital photograph on aluminium

The entrance hosts a large traditional ceremonial dress made from tapa, a paper-like cloth from a native tree of New Zealand. The sidewall hangs a series of self portraits by Shigeyuki Kihara, the first living artist from the South Pacific to hold a solo exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

They depict Kihara as characters from Samoan stories, set in hyper-saturated colours against dark Caravaggesque backgrounds. The works subvert expectations, as Kihara is a fa'afafine – a biological male who lives as women, an established role in Samoan society.

A picture of a woman dressed in green, pink and orange tribeswoman wear with green hair

Rosanna Raymond, Rave on Maiden. Digital print on Dibond perspex. Kerry Brown

Floating above visitors, George Nuku's sculptural works, derived from traditional Maori symbols, are released from their display cases in a signal that their cultural significance cannot be constrained to museum definitions.

Nuku's use of perspex for the Maori carvings is a graceful and thoughtful reinterpretation. The wall opposing Kihara's works contains digital photographs of male ancestral deities, or atua, by Lisa Reihana.

A picture of an aboriginal woman in shadows wearing a floral headdress

Shigeyuki Kihara, Tonumaipe'a, How she was Saved by the Bat, Faleaitu, House of Spirits Series. C-print on Dibond aluminium. Sean Coyle

The Dandy, a digital photographic work used on the cover of the exhibition, is a striking image of a Maori with a Ta Moko facial tattoo in 19th century European dress.

The adjoining room displays Rosanna Raymond's sexually-charged photographic images of "Dusky Maidens" in traditional dress. During the course of the exhibition, Raymond’s work will evolve with performance, costume, body adornment, poetry, film and photography to celebrate the female spirit.

A picture of a silver Maori patterned carving

George Nuku (2009), Outer Space Marae, Whare Mata Whao o Rua (House Carved Twice). Perspex, paua, haliotis shell and paint

Although it is worth visiting the works without the crowds that attended the exhibition opening, the Polynesian performances enhanced the tangibility of traditional New Zealand culture.

In fact, many of the visual artworks feel constrained in a conventional gallery setting, working best in tandem with the performances.

A picture of a naked man floating in the cosmos of space

Lisa Reihana, Ranginui (2007). Digital photograph on aluminium

"People want to feel there is a little wild in their lives, especially for those of us living in the city," says Hawes. A trip to the Gallery for one of the artist's talks – particularly the Proporaki (farewell) celebration – will definitely fulfil that desire.

Artists' Talk takes place on September 15, 6.30pm. Poroporoaki (Farewell) runs October 10, 3pm. Admission to both events free, call 20 7242 7367 or visit the Gallery online for more details.

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