PANDORA FULIMANO PEREIRA
Fatu Feu'u, the noted New Zealand-based Samoan artist, speaks of Samoan art with authority:
Two categories of chiefly titles exist within the Samoan matai (appointed heads of kin groups) system, one is ali'i, chief, the other tulafale, orator. Ali'i are 'sacred' chiefs as it were, genealogically linked to the gods, and ultimately to he who was first, Tagaloaa-lagi. Respected elders of the extended family, ali'i are the ultimate authority regarding all property and resources of their respective families. Their carriage and behaviour are a reflection on all those they represent. Tulafale on the other hand are the 'secular' chiefs, chosen advisers and the voice of ali'i. In practice however, the tulafale role cannot be so easily dismissed. Tulafale are potentially extremely influential, their power base the individuals' knowledge of Samoan history, traditions and genealogy, and the ability of those individuals to articulate and wield that knowledge.
Fatu Feu'u holds both an ali'i title and a tulafale title. Feu'u has the orator title of Si'a, bestowed by his father's family, of the village of Potasi, and the ali'i title of Lesa, bestowed by his mother's family, of the village of Sa'anapu.
As a binary pair, these titled roles manifest traditional Samoan ideals of balance, sacred / secular, inactive / active, dignified / aggressive and so forth. A duality can be perceived in the roles Feu'u has within the Samoan cultural context, as both chief and orator, and that which he has carved out for himself within the New Zealand artistic context, as an artist and educator.
In the true egalitarian ethic at the heart of Polynesia, one may be addressed as ali'i upon reaching a certain age. But beyond this respect for age and formal title, Feu'u has earned kudos through sheer hard work and diligence. Giving much of himself and his energy, Feu'u makes himself available to all - journalists, educationalists, tertiary students, young artists and school children - equally.
Recognised as the elder statesman of Pacific art, Feu'u takes this role seriously and uses it to advance Pacific art and artists. His involvement with the New Zealand Medallion Group, is one such example. Membership of this small and select body of artists was an exciting prospect, offering Feu'u the opportunity to explore what for him, was a new medium. But perhaps more enlightening has been the experience of curating their 2001 group show Pacific Rim - Te Pae O Te Moananui A Kiwa. Used to working in larger formats, Feu'u was confronted not only with the rigid set of dimensional specifications, but also with a cross-cultural situation he had not expected.
The show toured around the country, showed in London, and opens in New York later this year.
As custodians of culture and history in Samoan society, tulafale employ allusion, myth and imagery, they plumb Samoan history for symbolism and allegoric metaphor in the delivery of truly great speeches. Just as a tulafale's knowledge and power finds full expression in oratory, Feu'u too utilises myth and metaphor in the creation of works here in New Zealand. Fa'aSamoa, the Samoan way, is his frame of reference, his graphic vocabulary a cache of Samoan, and increasingly pan-Pacific, stylistic patterns and abstract designs. Reinforcing the duality of the roles he fulfils within the two countries he refers to as home.
A pragmatist at heart, Feu'u laughingly admits the additional names that come with the respective titles can be problematic. 'My family have asked me to sign works using my titles, but commercially it is difficult. You would end up with your title name or names, the family name, your own name. You'll end up with a whole string of names across the bottom of the works, and people will think "what the hell is going on here?"'5 On the other hand, deeply moved by the recognition of his 'aiga (extended family), the full weight of the responsibility is certainly not lost on Feu'u.
I feel very humble and honoured to have these titles bestowed on me . . . for my family to recognise me with these titles is a great personal honour.
In speaking about his art practice, Feu'u asserts an intention to mediate an understanding of Samoan culture and history. What is equally apparent is that Samoan culture is the filter through which Feu'u interprets all that is around him. From national issues of race relations in New Zealand, and international conservation concerns, to very personal themes of a child's struggles and personal estrangements, all are worked through a very Samoan worldview.
Early in his career Feu'u looked to the likes of Picasso and Gauguin for artistic inspiration. The well-documented chance meeting with Tony Fomison in the early 1980s helped him redirect his attention, and focus much more directly on what he already knew and loved-Samoan culture and traditions. It is a rich vein, which Feu'u has mined to great effect over the intervening years.
Cultural values of balance, symmetry, exchange and reciprocity informed ancient designs, repetition of which remain and continue to be incorporated into Pacific tapa and tattoo. Many of these patterns find new expression in the works of Feu'u, and to these ancient insights, he adds his own personal meanings and metaphors. His iconography is an amalgam of graphic patterns from siapo, tapa-making and tatau, tattoo; stylised elements such as frangipani, gogo, tern, anufe, caterpillar; and objects of evident symbolic potential, hand prints, paddles, scales. To this mix he adds elements of personal symbolism, of which the Lapita 'mask' stands out as a striking example.
Much has been made of the use of the mask motif in Feu'u's.work. The 'mask' face appeared on a 'new' form of decorated pottery found in island Melanesia, and is material evidence of a people who emerged from the west, and who would over the coming centuries discover and settle the islands of the Pacific, and develop a Polynesian culture in the area of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, 'the cradle of Polynesia'.
Contrary to the Samoan view of an autochthonous origin, this 'new' find points to a tradition of migration. The meaning and significance of the face is now unknown, however Feu'u has claimed this 'mask' for his repertoire of design elements and in navigating the disparate Samoan and western worldviews, the 'mask' has become symbolic of the quintessential spiritual ancestor, and the spiritual dimension.
In the same way a studious and diligent tulafale will consult and seek the counsel of respected and knowledgeable elders. Feu'u regularly returns home to Samoa to refresh his memory, inhale the smell of home, and also to consult with elders of his 'aiga and village. Over the years Feu'u has also struck up other kinds of collaborative relationships. He has had many years' association with the 'old man' of Pacific archaeology himself, Auckland University Professor Roger Green, who 'unearthed' the potsherd with the stylised human face during research in Santa Cruz. Theirs has been a reciprocal exchange of knowledge; at times the teacher becomes the pupil and the pupil the teacher.
Represented in public and private collections all over the country, Feu'u has been commissioned for works throughout the Pacific and has works in museums and art galleries in New Caledonia, Australia, New York and Germany. As the consummate salesman Feu'u has accomplished a certain level of commercial success. Indeed it is difficult to find a more patent example of aptitude, perseverance and hard work resulting in 'living the dream', thus making Feu'u a tremendous role model for young Pacific islanders exploring a career in the visual arts.
Over the last five years reconciliation has been Feu'u's thematic preoccupation, and ifoga the sub-text of an on-going series of works. In this most Samoan of rituals, Feu'u finds possibilities and lessons to mediate an as yet unknowable resolution to the current issues regarding New Zealand's foreshore and seabed. Our 'paramount chief' has on various occasions offered formal apology in her capacity as the head of this country. But the ultimate act of contrition is highly unlikely.
Sometimes dismissed as too accessible, stereotypical and ubiquitous, Feu'u's works have undeniably struck a chord; non-confrontational and sincere they offer a Pacific accent to a still largely self-conscious New Zealand, but one that is aware of its place in the Pacific. Feu'u has also been criticised for the range of media he uses. For this he is unapologetic, and seems genuinely baffled that he should even entertain the idea of restricting himself.
1. Tala lasi Samoa refers to the multiplicity of meanings within Samoan narratives.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 111 Winter 2004