Pacific Wave

Various locations throughout Sydney

Despite the notorious dawn raids of the 1960s and 1970s which attempted to rid the city of Pacific Islanders who had 'overstayed their welcome' Auckland now boasts of the world's largest Polynesian population. Sydney is also a city with significant and growing Islander communities. The second Pacific Wave to be held in Sydney was essentially an Australian, Aotearoa/New Zealand project which acknowledged the contributions of Polynesian, Melanesian and Aboriginal people to contemporary antipodean culture. Artistic Directors Julianne Pierce and Con Gouriotis and Festival Coordinator Maud Page with the help of many friends and modest funding organised a comprehensive celebration of traditional and contemporary art forms from the regions of the south western Pacific. Presented by the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Performance Space and Bondi Pavilion Community Cultural Centre, Pacific Wave included visual arts exhibitions, performance, forums, concerts, readings and a feast. Its lack of distinction between community based activities and the 'high' arts made for a festival in which people involved in a broad spectrum of artistic activity could participate, exchange and learn a great deal.

In preparation for this review I watched South Pacific the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of 1958 directed by Joshua Logan. I figured that South Pacific would encapsulate all of the common myths and misconceptions which have shaped our view of life in the Pacific. Of course I was right; there on the archetypal island of Bali Ha'i were the happy, carefree natives occupying a tropical paradise with nothing to do except frolic in the crystal clear lagoon, greet American visitors, sing, dance, eat and make love. There were also traces of Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa), James A. Michener (Hawaii) and it was no surprise that the island is bathed in the hues of Gauguin. What I didn't count on is that I would be completely and utterly seduced by this film. The construct of a 'Pacific Paradise' based on entrenched Western notions of beauty and what constitutes a utopian existence, is very difficult to leave behind.

A number the exhibitions and events in Pacific Wave investigated the issues of representation. At Performance Space Philip Juster's Oceania Moderne attempted to invert the Pacific myth by way of an exaggerated kitsch which drew upon popular culture, museology and the marketing conventions of the tourist industry. Juster's installation, Tahiti 3000 with Mutiny, an imaginary living room in future Oceania complete with Queen Salote wall paper, references the artificial perimeters of ethnographic rooms in museums, in this case the Polynesian room. Herein, a video collage of island panoramas, pacific adventure films and porno movies with a soundtrack including 1950's cocktail music and Ave Maria, re-views the way pacific cultures have been (mis)represented by Western media. Juster works at the Vegas end of aesthetics where glamour becomes sad and thus he takes the shine off the South Pacific myth with work that is uncompromisingly tacky.

Bizarre colonial representations of the people of Papua New Guinea were abundant in Ways of Seeing: The Camera Eye and Papua New Guinea, an evening of films at the Bondi Pavilion, curated by Mark Worth and Bronwyn Kidd. Movie Tone news reels from the '50s and '60s along with a lengthy film about independence and more incisive pieces such as Dennis O'Rourke's Cannibal Tours dragged the audience from hysteria to horror in a survey of the breath taking ignorance through which our views of the region have been filtered. The patronising voices of news reel reporters, however, were balanced by films such as Cannibal Tours in which we follow a group of thrill-seeking European tourists on their misguided quest for the excitement that only genuine cannibals and head hunters can provide.

Cracks in the veneer of a 'peaceful pacific' appeared early in Pacific Wave. As choirs from Western Sydney Community groups, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Samoa gathered for the official opening––an evening of spiritual song at Casula Powerhouse-choristers were confronted by Furious, an exhibition of works by Anderson Lelei and Gordon Hookey who had been in residence at Casula for eight weeks. The work of these 'angry young men' reflects the painful realities of present day urban life in Sydney and Auckland and as such, is unashamedly critical. Lelei's candid comment on the Samoan clergy, Samoan-born ministers are wankers generated a conflict with the profoundly religious members of church groups which highlighted the stranglehold that Christian missionaries have had on island cultures and indigenous populations. Christianity has permeated the customs of many of these cultures and created a gene rational rift based on questions of purity in the maintenance of certain traditional practices.

Issues of tradition pervaded Pacific Wave. A mixed reception for the Auckland based Pacific Sisters' Tribe Vibe at Performance Space was in part the result of their performance affronting established notions of tradition. While one of the 'sisters' claimed wryly, 'it's all tradition', their performance charted the ever precarious territory of art and fashion, thus challenging a contemporary urban audience's understanding of authenticity. From their point of departure which drew upon a number of mythologies and traditional modes of performance, the sisters burst into 'frock action', an enthusiastic romp on the catwalk while they modelled the work of some of Auckland's most daring designers.

Pacific Sisters are a fluid group of visual artists, designers, models, dancers and performers whose activities are sometimes compared with those of Andy Warhol's Factory. Their 'act', which continues the oral traditions of story telling along with rap music, fashion and funk, paradoxically re-negotiates the 'traditional' for a contemporary audience who then find the performance bewildering in the sense that their expectations have not been met. In the context of Tribe Vibe the costumes are the art, focussing on the connection between traditional practices and contemporary interpretations. Or as Lisa Reihana explained, 'Each costume has a story, a myth, using contemporary materials in traditional ways and vice-versa'. (City Hub 12/11/98)

Similar difficulties arose for George Telek and David Bridie's (Not Drowning, Waving) first night audience. In post concert discussions at the Performance Space bar it became clear that Bridie's influence was largely unappreciated. While the ukulele and acoustic guitars are scarcely 'traditional' in Rabaul, Telek's birth place, no one seemed to be prepared for a brash overlay of synthesised sound. Telek is a performer with enormous charisma and he has what Sebastian Thomas described as, '...that rare quality of auric introspection... as if we the audience are simply there to observe a meditation'. (City Hub 26/11/98) This explains why Telek soars when alone or with acoustic accompaniment, and why the spell is broken when his music is blended with redundant 'contemporary grooves'.

The dialogue between traditional and contemporary art practices worked much more effectively in Fisi-The Blossoming of the Waves. Curated by Luke Parker and Fiona MacDonald and elegantly installed in the cavernous space of the Mori Gallery this exhibition was the 'talk of the town'. The ambitious sweep of Fisi, which included the work of artists from throughout the region, demonstrated a subtle spectral relationship between the traditional and the contemporary. Fiona MacDonald's Field Sports 1998 for instance, consisting of woven colour e-prints from European engravings of Aboriginal life in the last century, serves as a potent comment upon the wretched history of race relations in Australia. Lisa Reihana's Te Wao O Tane 1996 which evokes the traditional Maori cloak in velvet and satin squares with feathers, also spans cultures and centuries by way of its thoroughly modernist aesthetic.

Reihana's work seemed to be everywhere. At the Australian Centre for Photography, Hyper Girls, her video collaboration with Ani O'Neill drew upon memories of their frenetic travels throughout the Pacific during the 1996 Asia Pacific Triennial and the Pacific Festival of Arts. This unabashed pop video immediately seduced its audience with the artists' sense of fun and style as Reihana and O'Neill took on the fantastic worlds of tourism, fashion and art with a refreshing sense of irony. Her whimsical Fluffy Things at the Downing Centre Showcase were another example of Reihana's eclecticism. This 'dreamlike aquarium of shellfish and underwater flora' was inspired by everything from the Sydney Aquarium to Rangi to Papa who are, to the Maori, sky father and earth mother. While the diversity of works exhibited by Reihana during Pacific Wave elicited accusations of 'restlessness ', her work is consistently intelligent, satirical, penetrating and exquisitely crafted.

Another way of looking at cross cultural 'developments' was seen in The Wide and Deep Ocean an exhibition of works by Samoan artist Michael Tuffery at the Hogarth Galleries. This exhibition of drawings and sculptures depicting strange mechanistic sea creatures which appeared to be still on prehistory's drafting board explored the philosophies of Tangaroa, God of the Sea. As the mythologies and survival of many Pacific cultures have been inextricably intertwined with the sea, Tuffery's work celebrated that relationship while also addressing its decline. His fire breathing turtle, made from industrial waste, tyres, rivets and discarded cans, was both fascinating and disturbing. On the opening night Samoan dancers gave this extraordinary mechanically operated creature 'life' as it lurched down the lane beside the gallery, breathing fire and black fumes. There were elements of Frankenstein's monster here, of artist playing God, as Tuffery tapped the illusion of a primitive life force to which we can all respond with that anxious mix of terror and awe.

Unfortunately my time in Sydney for Pacific Wave was short. This review therefore only scratches the surface of a festival which was thorough in its incorporation of diverse cultural activities and its coverage of the issues which currently concern the region. While Pacific Wave by no means presented the region through rose coloured glasses the people I encountered seemed genuinely friendly, interested and rewarded by what they had seen. Public and private galleries (sales or no sales) participated enthusiastically and the city itself appeared to be seduced by perceptions of life in the Pacific where the lines between myth and reality are ever difficult to distinguish.

I farewelled Pacific Wave at Flax Mat Theories, An Evening of Pasifik Phunk in the Palladium Nightclub. From the beginning this was a difficult evening of delays which lead to an impatient audience drifting away while the bands and management struggled to stay on top of the event. Patience would be amply rewarded by DAM Native, but rumour and confusion reigned as no band appeared and lead singer Danny Dee was joined by a member of Token Village hailed as the 'number one hip hop band in Aotearoa'. Using his microphone and a Maori flag as props, Dee's overtly political performance seemed meant as much to incite as it was to entertain. It was through this charismatic young performer, who embodied the militant pride felt by many Maori people, that I was awakened from any complacency I might have felt towards the work I had seen and enjoyed so much in Pacific Wave. Momentarily I was reminded of a South Pacific Paradise Lost.