|| Paradise Now? main exhibition || Exhibitions

Article by Julie Rauer


Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific

Catalogue Essay by Melissa Chiu
Curator for Contemporary Asian and Asian American Art
Asia Society and Museum

Introduction: Tikis, Torches, and Beachside Barbeques


Elvis Presley stands atop a miniature, volcano surrounded by palm trees, a blue lagoon, and groups of scantily clad Pacific Island dancers in native dress. Tanned, slim, wearing an open-necked shirt and wiggling his hips to the beat of drums, he’s singing the last song in the 1966 Hollywood movie Paradise, Hawaiian Style, which I caught on cable television while packing my bags for a trip to the Pacific to choose works for this exhibition. I laughed out loud at the messy conflation of Polynesian and Melanesian cultures and at the silliness of the scene, which embodied every cliché of the Pacific as a paradise, and escapist fantasy, for workaday Americans.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style set me thinking about how popular perceptions of the Pacific Islands as a paradise have changed little since entering the European popular imagination in the eighteenth century via the ecstatic descriptions of Polynesia found in the writings of early explorers. In the post-War World II period, Hollywood rediscovered the Pacific Islands, in particular Hawaii, as a location for the staging of love stories in exotic locations for an emerging youth film market. Some of the more famous examples include films like Blue Hawaii (1961) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), which depict the Pacific as a clean, pristine playground for young affluent and mobile Americans.

During this period, the image of the Pacific as a paradise was not confined to Hollywood movies. Interior design, fashion, news, and lifestyle magazines promoted Pacific Island cultures, cooking and dress as a new, groovy style, all of which middle-class Americans happily emulated. The cultural historian Christopher L. Connery describes this period as a “time of…tiki torches and of barbeques in orchidean backyard lanais, where, to the ‘exotic’ sounds of Martin Denny’s Hawaiian combo, newly arrived southern Californians could imagine themselves part of a transpacific post-war paradise of pure relaxation.” 1 Now, it seems, all Americans could have a little piece of paradise in their own backyard. Anyway, that was the advertising message.

Of course, the idea of the Pacific Islands as a paradise was not just confined to America, or the twentieth century. Spanish, Dutch, French, and English explorers were the first Europeans to encounter the Pacific Islands, and their accounts shaped the mythology of the region as a paradise. This idea reached its height in the eighteenth century, most notably in the writings of the Englishman James Cook, the greatest of the Pacific explorers, and in the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s published account of his voyage to the Pacific in the 1771. Bougainville’s voyage, in 1768, led to the discovery of a number of unknown Pacific Islands, among them Tahiti, which he renamed “La Nouvelle Cythère” because of the perceived loveliness of the natural setting, and the appealing physical beauty, innocence, and openness of the semi-naked inhabitants—a reference to the ancient Greek myth of the birth of Venus, the goddess of love, who had risen from the sea off the coast of the island of Cythera. He returned to France a hero and subsequently published his diaries. Although long-winded, and even at times a little fanciful, they were to remain among the most influential early accounts of life in the South Seas.

Paradise Now? Contemporary Art From the Pacific takes as its departure point the popular perception of the Pacific as a paradise, a worn cliché refreshed seasonally by tourist operators, drinking water companies, pearl traders, and other enterprises. 2 While acknowledging the persistence of such perceptions of their region, the fifteen artists included in this exhibition provide an alternative, more complex vision of the Pacific--one based in the experience of day-to-day life in the region. Working in video, installation, sculpture, painting, and photography, the artists in Paradise Now? show us the Pacific Islands from an insider’s perspective. Addressed in the works are environmental concerns, cultural heritage issues, questions relating to the experience of migration and diaspora, and the intersection of indigenous belief systems and Western religions. If an image of paradise emerges here, it is one that is fragmented, contradictory, and hybrid.

Why, then, an exhibition of Pacific artists, and why now? Simply, there has never been a major museum exhibition in the United States of contemporary artists from the Pacific Islands. In fact, with the exception of Te Maori, an exhibition of traditional Maori art and artefacts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1984, and Pacific Parallels: Artists and the Landscape in New Zealand, an exhibition of contemporary as well as historical New Zealand landscape art, which toured the United States in 1991, there has never been any kind of sustained curatorial analysis in this country of art from a region that, geographically, makes up one third of the world’s surface. 3 Paradise Now? Contemporary Art From the Pacific aims to fill that gap, including work by artists from New Zealand, the Torres Strait Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, Hawaii, Rotuma, and Niue, while at the same time offering American audiences a glimpse of the diverse contemporary artwork being produced in the region. The quality and volume of this work has increased exponentially over the last decade, something that is reflected in the opening of new commercial art galleries, the proliferation of Pacific arts festivals, art biennales and the building of new museums throughout the region. A centrepiece of these activities is the spectacular Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, designed by the architect Renzo Piano (fig. 2).

Specific examples of a new-found recognition and appreciation of contemporary Pacific art and artists include the establishment in 1992 of a contemporary art biennale in Noumea; curated exhibitions attached to the Pacific Arts Festival, held every four years, with host responsibilities rotating throughout the Pacific; the biennial Pacific Wave Festival held in Sydney; the steady showcasing of Pacific artists in the Asia-Pacific Triennial, established in 1993 at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; the establishment in 1994 of the Pacific Arts Committee of Creative New Zealand, New Zealand’s federal arts funding body; the establishment in 1988 of the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, a charitable trust set up to promote contemporary Pacific art and educate, mentor, and support both emerging and established Pacific artists; the publication of the first major study of contemporary Pacific art, such as Susan Cochrane’s Bérétara: Contemporary Pacific Art, (2001) and Pacific Art: Persistence, Change and Meaning, edited by Anita Herle, Nick Stanley, Karen Stevenson, and Robert L. Welsch in 2002; and myriad solo and group exhibitions by artists in Europe. 4

Of all the issues dealt with by the artists in this exhibition, questions relating to migration and diaspora are by far the most important. 5 This is the case because most of the artists included in the exhibition live outside their countries of origin (New Zealand has been a popular destination) or have lived away for significant periods, suggesting fluidity among contemporary artists living and working in the Pacific. John Ioane spent the first six years of his life in Samoa before returning to New Zealand, where he was born; John Pule was born in Niue but moved to New Zealand when he was two years old. Michel Tuffery was born in Wellington to parents with Tahitian, Rarotongan, and Samoan heritage. Niki Hastings-McFall was born in West Auckland and discovered her Samoan heritage in 1992. And Sofia Tekela-Smith was born in New Zealand, where she now lives, but was raised by her grandmother on the island of Rotuma, near Fiji. These experiences are not unique, for more than one in nine Pacific Islanders lives abroad.

Pakeha /palagi artists (the Maori and Samoan terms for non-islanders) from the Pacific have also been included in the exhibition. Partly, this was to reflect the large non-indigenous population in the region, and partly because their work engages critically with myths of the Pacific as a paradise. For instance, Peter Peryer, W.D. Hammond, and Ruth Watson, all born in New Zealand, present alternative visions of the island landscape, all of which possess a dark, almost gothic sensibility. This is a far cry from Elvis and Gidget.

Nowhere is the image of the Pacific Island as a paradise manufactured and maintained so effectively as in the tourism industry. This is the subject of Historic Waikiki (2001) (cat. 6), a multimedia work by Downwind Productions, a collaborative project between Hawaii-based artist Gaye Chan and the art historian Andrea Feeser. The piece consists of small bits of concrete, purportedly from Waikiki’s hotels and resorts, packaged and sold in stores in Waikiki as if they were authentic historical souvenirs. In addition to the concrete, each of the packets contained a folded sheet of paper with a map and short history of indigenous cultural and environmental damage caused by reckless development projects associated with Hawaii’s tourist industry. Four stories of local destruction are explored, including the draining of local canals established by indigenous Hawaiians for farming, the development of hotels on Hawaiian burial sites, the sale of land for luxury homes, and the discovery of sacred stones in the foundations of a bowling alley. The work includes a website featuring a virtual tour of Waikiki, stories of the island’s history, and anecdotes from residents about their memories and experiences of life on the islands. 6 Together, the website and bogus tourist knick-knacks focus attention on the cultural and environmental changes that have occurred in Waikiki since European settlement and raise questions about the unblinking embrace of tourism as the sole economic savior and ongoing representations of the islands as a leisure paradise.

Born in New Zealand, Ruth Watson has lived in Berlin and Sydney; Canberra is her present home. For the last fifteen years, Watson’s works have been about cartography, in particular the way that maps construct our idea of the world. As a response to this, Watson creates maps based on early historical projections of the globe, particularly those from the sixteenth century, which arranged countries very differently. For example, Lingua Geographica (Geographic Tongue) (1996) (cat. 41) uses photographic fragments of a picture of her tongue to create a map of the world in the shape of a heart. Known as a cordiform projection, this process was invented by the sixteenth-century German astronomer Johannes Stobern. The representation of the world using imagery of her tongue, a sensory organ, suggests that maps effect not just the way we see the world but also our experience of it. A related work, Oceanography (2004) (fig. 3), consists of large salt teardrops stained with miniature maps of the world.

John Ioane’s installation combining wooden sculptures and video projections, Fale Sa (1999) (cat. 12, fig. 1), is based on his childhood memories of Samoa. His most vivid memories of this period in his life are of the ocean, which is represented in the work as a long corridor of blue light, with hand-carved wooden cowrie shells scattered along the floor as if it were the ocean-bed. The blue leads into a larger second space, which contains three monumental vertical wooden sculptures, each colored a shiny gray-black and covered with roughly carved designs recalling natural forms such as seedpods and leaves or coral and mollusks. Ioane speaks about this work as “a space for healing,” something that is reflected in the title: in English, the Samoan words Fale Sa mean “sacred space.” The two different parts of the installation might also be understood as the embodiment of the Samoan concepts of night and darkness (po) and dawn and daylight (malama). This binary suggests a traditional spirituality at the core of Ioane’s art practice, one based partly on his belief that his works “create a space for magic to occur.”

John Pule, a poet and figurative painter, migrated to New Zealand from Niue (the world’s smallest independent state) when he was child. Pule’s paintings tell the modern history of Niue in an abstract, pared-down manner based on traditional Polynesian painting styles, characterized by a segmented picture plane and smudged lines used to decorate Niuean tapa (hiapo), a cloth made from the bark of breadfruit or mulberry trees. Pule was baptized a Mormon, and missions and churches are a recurring image in his paintings. One of his most important paintings, Take These With You When You Leave (1998) (fig. 4), includes images of churches along with representations of airplanes, weapons, tools, ships, cars, and farms. The depiction of symbols of contemporary life in a traditional form of representation suggests dissatisfaction with the history of settlement on Niue and its impact on traditional life.

Such strident criticism of changes in his homeland continues in the paintings included in this exhibition. For example, all three works in a series created over the past year, I had a Mind as Invisible as Light (2002) (cat. 30), Tofua (2002) (cat. 29), and Amanakiega (2003) (cat. 28), use churches as the setting for scenes of violence. In these works, we see miniature silhouetted figures drawn in black ink gathered around a crucifixion, or wounded figures being carried into ambulances or helicopters. The activity takes place on shapes that resemble blood-red islands, which could be interpreted as clouds. Is this real, or something conjured by the artist’s imagination? We have to assume it is real, given the title of one of these works, Tofua, that makes reference to the name of the boat on which the artist and his family migrated to New Zealand.

Although her father is Samoan, Niki Hastings-McFall was born in New Zealand and grew up there. As an adult, in Auckland, she recalls seeing lei made from plastic bags and egg shell cartons at local street fairs. This became an important influence on her work, which frequently employs lei made from all kinds of popular, everyday materials.

Nuclear Rosary Series—Black Rain III (2003) (cat. 8) comprises an enlarged string of rosary beads made from plastic disks cut into the shape of flowers and held together by sterling silver rings. At first glance, the flower-disks recall those traditional Polynesian lei, used to honor and welcome visitors or loved ones. But this is deceptive, for underlying the work is a serious political message. The flower-disks glow in the dark, a reference perhaps to the effects of contamination from nuclear testing in the Pacific that was carried out by the American and French governments as late as the mid-1990s. With this work, Hastings-McFall equates the life threatening effects of radioactive contamination with the introduction of Christianity in the Pacific.

Hastings-McFall also used lei in Too Much Sushi VI, VII and VIII (2003) (cat. 10, 11). For this work, she hand-threaded lei from hundreds of small plastic fish sachets used for soy sauce in Japanese restaurants in New Zealand. Here the artist identifies with her Polynesian ancestry (the lei) while at the same time acknowledging her upbringing and residency in Auckland, New Zealand’s most international and cosmopolitan city.

Afio Mai Series—Sunset at 619: I, II, III, IV, V and Sunset (2003) (cat. 9) (afio mai means “welcome” in Samoan) more directly addresses her family’s Samoan and Palagi backgrounds. This work consists of a series of framed photographs of sunsets of Auckland draped in lei, each made from duplicates of the photographs delicately folded and strung together to resemble flowers. The artist’s Palagi grandfather took the photographs, the negatives of which she inherited when he died recently. By reprinting her grandfather’s old photographs, framing them, and then draping them in lei, following the Polynesian custom of draping lei over photographs of loved ones, Hastings-McFall creates a hybrid memorial to her European grandfather.

Peter Peryer has been taking photographs since the early 1970s. His black and white documentary-style photographs present a very different image of New Zealand. Instead of idealized sunsets, he prefers to document quirky, eerie, slightly disturbing urban and rural images. The works in this show, spanning a twenty-year period, include images of a bloated dead cow left by the side of a highway, a rudimentary clock installed on the side of a mountain, a map of the north and south island of New Zealand made from bitumen, a derelict boat with Maori patterns painted along its sides, and Mount Taranaki framed by trees reminiscent of a classical landscape tradition (cat. 19). Peryer’s photographs suggest an authenticity of experience, reinforced by the medium of black and white photographs. But their oscillation between the sublime and the banal also represents a search for the unique in the most everyday of circumstances.

W.D. Hammond’s paintings also depict the New Zealand landscape, albeit filtered through the imagination. His paintings in the exhibition contain images of verdant, dense, tropical jungles inhabited by strange bird-like creatures. Although Hammond prefers not to speak publicly about the sources of his imagery, an often-cited reference for his bird-creatures is the work of the nineteenth-century ornithologist Sir Walter Lawry Buller, whose book A History of the Birds of New Zealand contains an encyclopaedic visual record of New Zealand birds. In the luscious green, almost viscous foreground of Placemakers I (1998) (cat. 7), figures with elongated bird heads flock together on three diagonal tree branches. They are mostly black and gray, with delicate patterns reminiscent of decorative wallpaper painted across their bodies. In the background, a lone female figure with a horse’s head, dressed in a corset bodice and long, old-fashioned skirt, stands gripping the back of a chair. What does it mean? Nobody really knows, although the contrast between bird-humans, with the birds a native New Zealand species, and a horse-human, the horse an introduced animal, suggests a metaphor for European settlement and conflict with the indigenous Maori population over use of the land.

Questions of indigenous land rights and ownership play an important role in the Maori artist Shane Cotton’s paintings. Needlework (1993) (see opposite title page). presents an image of New Zealand as a small island overcrowded with an assemblage of British and Maori flags. This work is all about territorial conflict between nations, symbolized by the flags, in particular the nineteenth-century wars between the Maori and the British over New Zealand. Most prominent of the flags is the Union Jack, although it stands alongside the more upright flags bearing a cross and crescent and six-pointed star, a reference to the Maori resistance leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, one of the most effective guerilla fighters in New Zealand's history. Some of the flagpoles are not altogether upright, which suggests that the British claim to New Zealand, traditionally announced with the staking of a flag, is not altogether certain.

Cotton’s more recent works appear less concerned with cultural conflict. Faith (1995) (cat. 2), Tuna (1996) (cat. 5), Cross (1996) (cat. 4), and Heke I (1998) (cat. 3) consist of dense, complex combinations of traditional and contemporary Maori and Pakeha imagery set against desolate, sepia-toned landscapes. Among the imagery included in these pictures are square-style tikis (representations of ancestors), painted scroll designs (kowhaiwhai) that are usually on the rafters of Maori meeting houses, Maori words, Christian crosses, and local flora. Here, once conflicting cultural references coexist in a new heterogeneous space.

Lisa Reihana is a young Maori video artist. Native Portraits n. 19897 (1998) (cat. 31), one of her most substantial videos, was commissioned by the Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand. For this piece, Reihana sifted through the museum’s collection of nineteenth-century photo portraits of Maori. Taking these portraits as a starting point, she dressed up her Maori friends in old-fashioned and contemporary outfits (military uniforms and nurses uniforms, as well as suits and laborers outfits) and recorded them on video as if they were posing for a photographic portrait. Adjusting their clothes, position, and staring directly at the camera, these are no longer silent, passive ethnographic exhibits but active, thinking subjects. This work is all about past and present-day representations of Maori, suggesting that while Maori may have more opportunities today than they once did, some stereotypes and prejudices remain.

Michael Parekowhai’s sculptures and installations also deal with stereotypes of Maori identity. Poorman, Beggarman and Thief (1996) (cat. 14, fig. 5), consists of three life-size Maori mannequins, modeled on the artist’s father, whose name is Hori, dressed in a tuxedo. They are positioned in front of works of art on a wall, as if visiting an art gallery, wearing a nametag saying “Hello, my name is HORI.” In New Zealand, Hori is used in the Pakeha community as a derogatory term for Maori people, but it is also the Maori translation of the English name George. The pejorative meaning of the nametag, along with the titles of the works, contrasts with the figure’s spiffy formal dress and presence in an art gallery. By parachuting an ugly cultural stereotype into the gallery, dressed as an urban sophisticate, Parekowhai is playfully turning assumptions about Maori people on their head. Hori might mean George, but that does not mean George is a Hori. With equal irony, Kapahaka (2003) (cat. 13) uses the artist’s brother as a model for a series of life-size figures of security guards.

Traditional dance, an important part of indigenous Pacific Island cultures, underpins the work of Michel Tuffery, Denise Tiavouane, and Ken Thaiday. Tuffery’s performances and sculptures draw upon Polynesian dance traditions, including those of Samoa and the Cook Islands. O le Povi Pusa Ma'ataua (1996), which means “jewel box of bulls” in Samoan, is a sculpture of a bull made out of tinned corned beef cans. Tuffery’s bulls have been exhibited in galleries as well as used in large-scale performances. His use of corned beef cans serves as a metaphor for the changes wrought on Samoan society following the introduction of Western foodstuffs after World War II, the fat content and high salt levels in the meat causing long-term health problems for Islanders. Other sculptures such as O le Saosoa Lapo'a / barracuda (2000) (cat. 39) and Asiasi I / thunnus albacares (2000) (cat. 38, fig. 6) deal with environmental concerns. Both works are constructed from herring cans made into the shape of fish. Although the artist uses herring cans, saosao is the Samoan word for “barracuda,” while asiasi means “yellowfin.” Here, the artist reflects ironically on the way that, because of over-fishing in the Pacific, Samoans, who live on an island, are beginning to replace local fresh fish with imported canned products.

Ken Thaiday takes sharks, fish, and birds, and other native Pacific animals as subjects for his moving sculptures or “dance machines” (fig. 7, cat. 34–36). Designed to sit on the head of a performer like a helmet with moving parts such as flapping birds wings, each controlled by string, the sculptures are made of wood, feathers, bits of metal, and other materials. Thaiday comes from the Torres Strait Islands, in the Torres Strait, to the North of Australia and close to Papua New Guinea, and these headdresses played an important role in local indigenous ceremonies. Of course, Thaiday has updated the form, materials, and subject matter to create traditional headdresses for the twenty-first century.

Denise Tiavouane’s installation The Modern Dance (2004) (cat. 37) appropriates male dance traditions from her home, the islands of New Caledonia. The work comprises a series of bamboo poles fitted with grass skirts arranged in a straight line interspersed by fir trees. Each pole is attached to an electric motor and rotates to the sound of traditional dance music emanating from hidden speakers. In this work, Tiavouane pairs two threatened aspects of New Caledonian life—indigenous cultural traditions and native forests, which have increasingly been cleared for nickel mining. Tiavouane sees this dance tradition and its music as symbols of the resilience of Kanak culture.

Although born in New Zealand to a Scottish father and Rotuman mother, Sofia Tekela-Smith was raised by her grandmother in Rotuma. Here she learned traditional women’s handicrafts such as weaving and platting from pandanus leaves and the making of body ornaments. For this exhibition, she is exhibiting two photographs of her body ornaments. The first image shows a man’s face, eyes closed, his mouth filled with a large white cowrie shell attached to a length of green hand-plaited rope coiled onto his forehead, recalling a Maori koru design (cat. 32). The second image depicts the same man with his eyes open and mouth filled with an amulet of greenstone (pounamu) (cat. 33). Both the cowrie shell and the amulet are symbolic objects within Rotuma and other Pacific Island cultures. Cowrie shells are considered symbols of female fertility, while greenstone is a symbol of prestige (mana), particularly in New Zealand where the stone is found. The placing of these objects in the man’s mouth suggests a kind of silencing, although it might also be seen as a gesture of intimacy, given that the man in the photographs is her partner.

The Indian-Fijian artist Mohini Chandra’s video Studio (2003) (cat. 1, also opposite Table of Contents) focuses on the commercial photographic portrait studio as a place where people stage images of themselves as they would like others to see them. Chandra’s video takes us into Indian-owned commercial photographic studios across Fiji, where people have their portraits taken against backdrops of idyllic natural environments. In the video, however, the places she records are completely denuded of people, although there is the sound of people having their photographs taken. On one level, the video works as a metaphor for the quasi-invisible social condition of Indian-Fijians, who make up almost 45 percent of the population but have limited rights to land ownership and troubled participation in the country’s legal, administrative, and political structure. On another level, the video of Indians having photographs of themselves taken against backdrops of artificial landscapes suggests an escapism but, perhaps, also an identification with a country and culture apart from the one in which they are living (fig. 8). This work, then, is all about the diasporic experience, and the way nostalgia for a homeland, even one that some Fijian-Indians have never visited, for many of them were born in Fiji and have spent their lives there, exerts a powerful pull on the imagination. Reflecting a world of cultural intersections and tensions, one rife with competing social, cultural, and economic claims as well as the legacy of colonialism, this is an image of paradise interrupted. It also presents a fairly typical portrait, “Pacific style,” of paradise now.

Melissa Chiu

© Melissa Chiu, Asia Society


  1. Connery, Christopher L. 1996. “The oceanic feeling and the regional imaginary.” In Global/local: Cultural production and the transnational imaginary, p. 302. [back]

  2. Exhibitions examining the Pacific as a paradise have also been popular in the region in recent years, such as Bright Paradise, the First Auckland Triennial (2001), an international biennale that combined local with international perspectives on the historical representations of the region as a paradise. The other day in Paradise (2003), a small show curated by two Islander artists, Andy Leleii‘uao and John Ioane, was another show dealing with these themes, albeit from a local perspective. [back]

  3. Smaller gallery exhibitions include Coming of Age in Amelika: Jewel Castro and Dan Taulapapa McMullin” at A/P/A Gallery, New York University (2001), Pacific Notion at Macy Gallery, Columbia University (2002), and Te Ao Tawhito/ Te Ao Hou: Old Worlds/New Worlds at the Art Museum of Missoula in Montana (2000). [back]

  4. Karen Stevenson’s essay in this catalogue examines some of these developments over the last decade within the context of New Zealand, where a large proportion of Pacific artists reside. [back]

  5. Pacific Island migration has a long history, dating back to settlement nearly 60,000 years ago relating to trade and the settlement of nearby islands. This aside, migration continues today with the major determinants being economic opportunities and the immigration policies of receiving nations. [back]

  6. The website address is [back]

Article by Julie Rauer || Paradise Now? main exhibition || Exhibitions