Lana Lopesi

Beyond Essentialism: Contemporary Moana Art from Aotearoa New Zealand

I will not pretend that I know her in all her manifestations. No one – not even our gods – ever did; no one does… no one ever will because whenever we think we have captured her she has already assumed new guises – the love affair is endless… 1
– Albert Wendt

Afterall Issue 46 Winter 2018. Courtesy Afterall

The ocean that Maualaivao Albert Wendt writes about has many names. It is called Te Moana Nui a Kiwa here in Aotearoa New Zealand,2 the great ocean of Kiwa. Kiwa is also the name of the guardian of the ocean and son of Papatūānuku and Ranginui.3 It is known as Moanākea in Hawai‘i, which acknowledges it as a great ocean where the energy ‘cannot be harnessed’.4 Moana means ocean in the Sāmoa, Tonga, Niue and Tahiti languages. Scholars Ōkusitino Māhina, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Tēvita Ka‘ili have picked up on how the term moana centres indigenous commonality, providing a way to discuss this part of the world.

What one calls the Moana, the other calls the Pacific Ocean – or Mar Pacifico, the name given to it in 1521 by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The ‘Pacific Ocean’ is the most commonly used term for referring to the vast expanse of ocean that makes up one third of the planet’s surface area and hosts thousands of cultures and languages. Mar Pacifico, or the peaceful seas, is a Western term that subsequently degrades the peoples inhabiting it by identifying them as peaceful, tranquil and passive – Moana subjectivities that are not self-appointed.

The pervasive colonial myths derived from explorers such as Magellan, as well as Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and James Cook, are etched into our contemporary understanding of the Moana. These continental men struggled to make sense of a vast ocean by focussing on land masses, portraying them as beautiful and idyllic yet isolated and deprived. In the eyes of Cook, Aotearoa New Zealand was the ‘farthest flung shore’,5 confirmation that oceanic peoples were outside the confines and corruption of Western civilisation. These accounts were accompanied by paintings and drawings by artists like Joseph Banks and Paul Gauguin, adding archetypes to the idyllic landscapes: the sexually receptive, beautiful dusky maiden; the innately good, uncivilised noble savage, not yet corrupted by Western civilisation.

With the invention of ethnographic photography, this imagery was distributed worldwide. From a voyeuristic standpoint, there could have been something endearing about the depictions: the focus was on the beauty and physicality of the Moana. Even if the images seemed to at least partly acknowledge their humanity, the approach was dehumanising, belittling and exoticising Moana peoples while justifying imperial policies of domestication.6 To this day Moana people struggle to assert and claim their humanity.

From the late eighteenth century the region became a place for conquer and conquest, with James King, a lieutenant on Cook's third voyage urging that Great Britain ‘must take the lead in reaping the full advantage of her own discoveries’.7 The British expansion into the Moana included the colonisation of Australia and Aotearoa, as well as what were named the British Western Pacific Territories. The colonial entity created in 1877 included Kiribati (1939–71), Cook Islands (1893–1901) and Niue (1900–01), the latter two both now self-governing in free association with New Zealand while Kiribati is now independent; Pitcairn Islands (1898–1952), still a British colony; Tonga (1900–52), which has always been staunchly independent; Tokelau (1877–1926), a dependent territory of New Zealand; Nauru (1914–21) now a trust territory administered by Australia; and Fiji (1877–1952), the Solomon Islands (1893 to 1971) and Vanuatu (1906–80), the three of which are now independent. The colonial entity also included the administration of Western Sāmoa by New Zealand after Germany ceded it post-World War I. This colonial myth of the vast Pacific Ocean or the South Seas separating tiny isolated islands has long been cemented in history. False borders were drawn across the ocean, and seafaring people became landlocked, their continent shattered into tiny pieces.

The colonial situation across the Moana, like many colonial ‘situations’, is complex. For starters, it is young. Cook's encounters occurred just 250 years ago; the region has been touched and divided by many empires (not just Great Britain), so that now decolonised, colonised and neo-colonised nations sit next to one another. It is easy to assume belittling colonial myths – the dusky maiden, noble savage, small deprived yet beautiful islands – are things of the past. Yet we should not underestimate the power of imperial depictions, both written and visual, within the dominant perception of the Moana region.

These myths spill over into our expectations of Moana contemporary art, dehumanising contemporary Moana peoples and trapping them within a certain era, set of concepts and aesthetics. Some contemporary artists are doing the important work of tackling these myths head-on by reappropriating and subverting them. A recent and prolific example is Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017, which remasters and digitises the French, scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804) by Jean-Gabriel Charvet Cie and Joseph Dufour.

Imperialism means that Moana peoples, especially those within settler nations such as Aotearoa New Zealand, are not separated off from global technology and discourse. Be it in Tokelau, a small traditional island atoll, or the contemporary Los Angeles diaspora, both are Moana peoples with internet connections. We span the cosmopolitan to the tribal, not as a binary, but as a display of diversity and difference. As Professor of Indigenous Education at University of Waikato Linda Tuhiwa-Smith states, ‘Decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple levels’,8 and therefore looks like many things. Moana contemporary art practices today – like Moana peoples – are all-encompassing, varied and to an extent undefinable.

Smith’s work has held a particular influence on contemporary art in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the seminal book Decolonizing Methodologies (1992) she writes that decolonisation encapsulates solutions from the ‘time before’, which she identifies as colonised time, and the ‘time before that’, or pre-colonised time, with decolonisation as present and perhaps also future time. Smith encourages thinking of both a pre-colonial time, in which indigenous peoples had complete authority over their ideas, and indigenous people’s need to understand how colonisation occurred and ‘what that has meant in terms of our immediate past and what it means for our present and future’.9

The Moana spans one third of the Earth’s total surface area, including thousands of archipelagos, languages and distinct cultures. It is therefore impossible to provide a summary of the art practices across that expanse. Even while the focus here is on Aotearoa New Zealand, and local Moana art practices, these too are wide ranging and heterogeneous. Perhaps what decolonisation can really offer us is not just a speaking back to the empire, but a pathway to Moana peoples asserting diverse, multi-layered and complex subjectivities, as exemplified in the work of Natasha Matila-Smith, Janet Lilo and Edith Amituanai.

Natasha Matila-Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Hine) challenges essentialist understandings of her indigeneity directly and indirectly. Based in Aotearoa New Zealand, she uses installation and digital space to deal with social exchanges and anxieties. In ‘Between You and Me' (2018), a group exhibition of three Moana contemporary women artists at ST PAUL St Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Matila-Smith exhibited four poly-velvet blend banners titled My sweetheart the drunk, The scent of you stays with me, His lips pink and swollen and Spaghetti, alone (all 2018). The large banners are suspended by two top corners and hang diagonally in the gallery space, with prose painted on their velvet surfaces. Acting as physical interventions in the architecture, the banners respond to the politics of romance in the digital era, harking back to the ways in which we stalk, generate memes and enact vulnerability online. This eye-wateringly honest approach to recounting social media experiences reminds us of the significance of online space today, and entangles her own indigenous experience within systems and structures such as that. The accompanying exhibition essay written by Faith Wilson observes: ‘it’s the act of creating new narratives that, to me, is revolutionary.’10 In this vein, it is easy to understand Matila-Smith’s practice as resisting definition and essentialist frameworks of the Moana.

Another Aotearoa New Zealand-based Moana artist who interrogates our relation-ship to social media, is Janet Lilo (Ngāpuhi, Samoa, Niue). Known for her experimental approach to photography and localised subject matter, curators and historians alike have struggled to categorise her. One thread of her work investigates the ways in which we take profile photos, as in her project Top 16 (2007–ongoing), in which she has focussed on social media site Bebo.11 Don’t Dream It’s Over (2017) is a public art installation that riffs on Pop art aesthetics and is intentionally a selfie magnet. The work is made up of three lamp-post-like structures framing the busy bus stop area at the Karangahape Road overbridge in Auckland. The three sculptures tower overhead, a yellow banana graphic repeated on each of their four sides. The tops have different neon blue slogans that say, ‘WAIT FOR ME’, ‘DON’T LET THEM WIN’ and ‘YOU MAKE ME WIN’, offering light and colour in the grey urban environment. For Untitled (2016), Lilo accumulated a hundred selfies using Snapchat’s dog filters, printed them as Polaroids to mimic the smartphone format with their similar dimensions and framed images, and then installed them on wooden supports. Snapchat only allows their users to send their images to their followers for a maximum of ten seconds – the first of its kind in a transient social networking platform, now adopted by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. Untitled is a print archive of a temporary form of self-representation, and a technology that will eventually become extinct.

The other thread of Lilo’s practice uses overlooked and banal visual tropes in the urban environment to present things as extraordinary. In Right of Way (2013) Lilo presents her own shared driveway as a full gallery installation with over 4,000 6×4 inch photographs as a larger than life montage. This local focus or referencing specific to her surroundings of Avondale, a suburb in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, rejects the need to claim a regional Moana identity. Lilo zooms instead into her own urban reality, creating her own bank of images and motifs, rather than those found on ancestral objects and within colonial myths, to represent her subjectivity. Presentation of Lilo’s work on an extraordinary scale encourages audience members to take selfies, enacting an intelligent critique of the boundaries between public and private lives, and the ways in which we manipulate our private lives for public consumption on social media. Self-gratifying desires to be liked or followed is made all the more poignant by gallery-going Instagrammers.

While coming at social media from very different perspectives, Lilo and Matila-Smith highlight how Moana experience, like all contemporary experience, is reliant on the internet and social media. With the dominant narrative of indigenous peoples being their eventual extinction, the internet as site of interrogation for Moana contemporary art is perhaps an unexpected proposition, even if an obvious part of most twenty-first century conversations.

Like Lilo, photographer Edith Amituanai (Samoa) is interested in super-local urban environments, tying into wider conversations on transnationalism and diaspora. Known for her photography of interiors, driveways and communities, Amituanai is concerned with environments that shape who we are – family homes, neighbourhoods, etc. In the series’ North to the Future (2008) and Millennial (2008), she documents Samoan transnational domestic interiors, focussing on ornamental tropes. Amituanai understands these influential places are not ones we choose. In contrast to Lilo, Amituanai highlights the invisible or hidden, in her words ‘the little gifts we can’t foresee’.12

Her subjects are Moana peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, communities that are susceptible to negative and stereotypical media representation that tends to only report on crime, poverty and deprivation constructed by those who don’t understand the social realities of these neighbourhoods. Amituanai turns away from the mainstream discourse to focus on one that is also driven by the communities themselves. Built on her relationships with the communities, Amituanai uses a collaborative approach to storytelling, amplifying unseen and unheard people. ETA (Edith’s Talent Agency) (2015–ongoing) is a project located in Amituanai’s suburb of Ranui, where she moonlights as the arts co-ordinator at Ranui Action Project.13 As community members came to know of her community work, Amituanai began to photograph them, often with her Instax camera, which they took as evidence of her being a ‘real photographer’. These Polaroid photographs were not works or records, but business cards she handed out to the community, introducing herself and her work to the neighbourhood and getting to know them in return. It took Amituanai four years working solely as a community worker before the relationships were strong enough to photograph the community for an exhibition.

In a context like Aotearoa New Zealand, it is easy to take the autonomy Moana artists like Matila-Smith, Lilo and Amituanai have to define their own subjectivities for granted. Since the Aotearoa population is strong at 22.3 per cent Moana (including Māori peoples indigenous to Aotearoa and other Moana peoples in the diaspora), Moana art practices are contextually situated, and audiences are familiar with the content. Generally, Moana artists are no longer exoticised, but rather a common presence in contemporary art, enabling artists to be free of essentialising views.

However, these same privileges are not afforded to Moana artists (or even peoples) outside of this context. In part, this is because the pervasive colonial myths and escapist narratives of the Moana are still alive and well in the imagination of the European public. The sudden interest in Moana art in time for the 250-year commemoration of Cook’s Pacific voyages, as seen in London’s The British Library exhibition ‘James Cook: The Voyages' (2018) and upcoming ‘Oceania' (2018) at The Royal Academy of Arts, is somewhat curious. It is perhaps troubling that it takes commemorating a historical nemesis, as he is known in this part of world, to generate conversations around Moana contemporary art practices. On the one hand, increasing the display of contemporary Moana art is exciting. On the other, one cannot help but see it as a contemporary display of the empire’s spoils. Furthermore, what may be a celebration for the colonisers, is yet another reminder of the oppression and subjugation of indigenous peoples as another notch on the belt of the empire. It is perhaps difficult to understand the ongoing impact and trauma caused by imperialism within the Moana from the distant location of London, but we must be critical of the limitations presented by these regional exhibitions.

Moving beyond the colonial celebrations of Cook and the myths he embedded in the impressionable European public, a wealth of Moana artists practice with critical rigour, aesthetic variety and astute commentary. Amituanai, Matila-Smith and Lilo exemplify the heterogeneous nature of Moana contemporary art, locating their indigenous subjectivities in specific and localised experiences, making the very premise of a regional art definition restrictive and perfunctory.

How do you define contemporary Moana art? You don’t.

  1. Albert Wendt, ‘Toward a New Oceania’, Mana Review, vol.1, no.1, 1976, p.49. 

  2. Aotearoa is the Te Reo Māori name for New Zealand. Te Reo Māori is the language of the Māori people, the indigenous people of New Zealand. In this essay I use Aotearoa New Zealand to signal its multiple histories. 

  3. Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father) are key figures in Māori mythology. 

  4. B. Pualani Lincoln Meialua, ‘Moanaākea’, in The Space Between: Negotiating, Place and Identity in the Pacific Culture (ed. A. Marata Tamaira), University of Hawaii: Honolulu, 2009, p.143. 

  5. Ron Brownson, ‘Roundtable: Thinking Through Oceania Now’, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture, no.4, 2010, p.91. 

  6. Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books, 2012, p.27. 

  7. James Cook and James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Volume 3, London: Champante & Withrow, 1793, p.ivii. 

  8. L. Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, op. cit., p.21. 

  9. Ibid., p.25. 

  10. Faith Wilson, ‘The Miseducation of Faith Wilson’, available at (last accessed on 3 May 2018). 

  11. Bebo was a pre-Facebook social networking site launched in 2005. At its peak it overtook Myspace with 10.7 million users. It eventually shut down in 2013. 

  12. Conversation with the artist, 27 March 2018. 

  13. Ranui Action Project is a community development group based in the suburb of Ranui, in the West side of Auckland, New Zealand 


Related to the exhibition: Layover
Published November 2018