torika bolatagici

Big Ideas for a Big Island – Media Release

Some of the workshop participants.

Some of the workshop participants.

Critical workshop in Wollongong tests the waters on future directions for Pacific arts

A workshop intensive to share research and pool ideas related to the discussion and promotion of contemporary Pacific arts in Australia was this week hosted by the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies at Wollongong University.

Australia, the Big Island in relation to the Pacific, generally looks to New Zealand when seeking to represent contemporary Pacific arts practice. Artists from smaller Pacific islands may be granted the occasional look-in, the workshop suggested, while Australian-based Pacific content is largely appreciated as ‘decoration’, with an emphasis on community- and tradition-based performance.

The Pacific Diaspora in Australia is currently around 400,000 people, approximately 2% of the Australian population. The number of contemporary artists among this particular group presents a vibrant but consistently untapped and overlooked dimension of the Australian art scene.

The Big Island workshop comprised artists, curators and academics. Noted art historian Karen Stevenson, author of The Frangipani is Dead (2009) among other seminal Pacific arts-related publications, ‘crossed the ditch’ (from New Zealand) to deliver a pointed keynote address. Chief among her paper’s concerns is a critical notion of what constitutes ‘contemporary’ Pacific art: how does ‘contemporary’ evade the persistent paradigms of authenticity and primitivism; how can it accommodate the region’s plethora of tradition-based practices?

The workshop also involved Susan Cochrane, a pioneering Australian academic/curator in the field, who introduced a major exposition of Papua New Guinean art currently in process, in partnership with the National Museum of Australia. Brisbane-based curator Joycelin Leahy detailed the challenges and rewards in mounting her recent survey exhibition Pacific Storms, which included some Australian-based artists among its 30-plus Pacific contemporary artists, and which looks set for a sequel in 2011. Leahy called for professional development opportunities for emerging Pacific curators and artists working within and outside Australia.

Murri Aboriginal artist/curator Jenny Fraser’s participation in the workshop highlighted the symbolic and effective role that Aboriginal people, the ‘old people’ of the Pacific, can play as independent cultural brokers in the region. Fraser has demonstrated as much with her ‘other APT’, an exhibition initiative begun in 2006 as a riposte to the lack of Aboriginal and Pacific Islander-related content in the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)’s Asia Pacific Triennial (APT). Fraser’s second ‘other APT’ will be a virtual exhibition (www.cybertribe.culture2.org/) to coincide with QAG’s APT6 which opens 5 December 2009. Washington University’s Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris spoke at the workshop of an artist, the late Wendy Choulai, and a time (the late ’90s) when the APT was apparently more Pacific-friendly.

The workshop was also an opportunity for postgraduate students to share their progress, with artist/researchers Annalise Friend (Wollongong University), Torika Bolatagici (Deakin University, Melbourne) and Keren Ruki (Australian National University, Canberra) speaking passionately on and around their respective practices. The current marginalisation of Pacific arts in Australia is reflected by the dearth of university teaching and research in this area, as signalled in the report, A National Strategy for the Study of the Pacific (2009), published by The Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies (established in 2006), and made available at the workshop.

Though relatively small in scale, the workshop was decidedly big on expertise, talent and ideas, with a view towards supporting related discrete events and towards the realisation of a regular hub venue and/or event within Australia for the ongoing critical appreciation and promotion of contemporary Pacific arts.

Other workshop participants (not mentioned above) included Ross Searle, Gary Lee, David Broker, Paul Sharrad, Lisa Havilah, Peter Eklund and the workshop convenor, Pamela Zeplin (University of South Australia). The papers presented at the workshop will form part of a future publication.

Further details: Pam.zepli(at)unisa.edu.au

Maurice O’Riordan
Art Monthly Australia

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