Greg SemuNovember 24, 2016
Adolf Loos, famous Viennese designer and arbiter of taste, said that only criminals and savages adorned themselves with tattoos. Writing in 1928, he singled out the Papuans as representative “savages”, but he might just as easily have chosen the Samoans. In the very same year, Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, perhaps the most famous anthropology book of the 20th century.
Mead’s account of the free-and-easy lifestyles of the Samoans and their permissive sexual attitudes found lasting favour with bohemians, beatniks and champions of the counterculture. It wasn’t that Mead was reinstating the idea of ‘the noble savage’, it was more like ‘the groovy savage’. There was widespread disappointment when New Zealand anthropologist, Derek Freeman, wrote a debunking account of the nine months Mead spent in Samoa. Freeman argued that Mead had been hoaxed by her subjects, who told her all the lurid things she apparently wanted to hear.
The argument continues today, with Mead’s defenders still holding out against her detractors. One wonders what she would have made of the work of Greg Semu (b.1971), who has spent much of his career grappling with the complexities of Samoan culture and identity. Semu’s survey at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation includes pieces owned by the Shermans, works from private and public collections, and vintage ethnographic photographs from the Tyrell Collection, on loan from the Powerhouse Museum. The gallery has been fitted out with specially-designed wallpaper that resembles a pin board covered in photos and prints.
Semu was born and raised in New Zealand but identifies as Samoan. He has always felt like an outsider, and has made this the ongoing theme of his work. Like so many Samoans his family were staunch Christians, which for Semu represented a further displacement from indigenous tradition. Today religion clings to him like a shadow, although he takes a critical, even parodic approach to the subject. In large-scale, staged photographic tableaux he reworks iconic religious images such as Leonardo’s Last Supper or Holbein’s Entombed Christ, exchanging the white, European figures for Polynesian ones.
It could be nothing more than a typically postmodern visual gag but Semu puts heart and soul into these pieces. His staged photographs are masterful accumulations of detail, with dark, Caravaggesque effects. We can recognise the humour in these works, but also the underlying seriousness of intent.
Semu took his Samoan heritage seriously enough to get the full body tattoo – the Pe’a - a process documented in the photographic triptych, Self-portrait with Back/Front/Side of Pe’a (2012) and a later set of pictures called Earning My Stripes (2015). Curator, Mark Feary tells how the tattoo was made “by the traditional means of using a set of handmade tools – fashioned from pieces of bone, turtle shell and wood.” By all accounts it’s an excruciating process. The ornamentation of the body is largely a side-effect of an all-important test of courage and endurance.
Semu’s Samoan identity is now literally inscribed on his flesh. Adolf Loos would have been horrified, but the tattoo could be seen as an important rite of passage for someone who feels that he needs to emphasise his links with a heritage he didn’t experience as a child. It’s not quite so easy to explain why so many white sportsmen have succumbed to the urge to have half their body tattooed. I doubt that Michael Clark has any serious Polynesian connections.
The Pe’a is Semu’s most serious piece of self-invention, but his entire persona is wilfully exotic, from his wedge-shaped haircut to his upturned moustache. He embraces theatricality as both artist and model, often making himself the focus of his ambitious photo-compositions. Far from playing the savage he might be better described as a dandy. The game, of course, is to set up a play of clashing codes. Ethnicity is not destiny any more, even in a world in which democracy seems to be rapidly devolving into tribalism.
Semu sifts through colonial history and western art history, looking for images that can be transformed into a work that appears simultaneously strange and familiar. What lifts him above the pack is a sensibility that is operatic rather than ideological. One can tell that he loves the spectacle more than the politics of interpretation.
Although the Pacific is the focus of his work, Semu has become a globalised artist, living and working for periods in France, Germany and the United States. In 2007, he was the first artist-in-residence at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
In his constructed tableaux he is adding a new postscript to the tradition of treating Pacific islanders and other tribal groups as ethnographic spectacles for western consumption. One sees this in the late 19th century studio photographs of Aboriginal people by J.W.Lindt, in which subjects are posed against stage sets, doing their best to look ‘typical’. The photographs from the Tyrell Collection, which date from 1884-1917, show Samoans in similar poses. One man appears in a grass skirt and a headdress, holding a spear. His counterpart in another photo carries a rifle. One “Samoan maiden” is bare breasted, while a group of seated women are dressed in bulky smocks.
The gun and the smocks are symbols of ‘civilisation’, showing the imprint that western weapons and Christian modesty have left on this community. Western audiences could thrill to the sight of these fierce-looking natives, and feel a complacent satisfaction in the thought that these people were being brought into the fold.
Such are the attitudes that Semu is mocking in a work such as Auto-portrait with 12 Disciples (from the series The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians) (2010). Taking the role of Jesus, he presides over a Polynesian version of Leonardo’s Last Supper. The table is draped in banana leaves, and the main course looks more like roast pig than roast human. Semu as Christ stands with with outstretched arms, while a man in an elaborate headdress plays St. Thomas with the characteristic raised finger.
This supper is a farewell to the old ways and the old gods, and the disciples look suitably alarmed. The missionaries’ efforts to make Christian converts were viewed in a heroic light in the 19th century, but today we see things rather differently. The veteran travel writer, Norman Lewis, wrote a devastating book called The Missionaries (1988) after seeing the cultural vandalism – and worse – inflicted by Jesus’s emissaries on native peoples in South America.
Semu is more satirist than polemicist, borrowing Jacques-Louis David’s image of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps in The Battle of the Noble Savage 1 (2007), in which two groups of heavily tattooed, partially uniformed warriors confront each other in a forest. The costumes are so mixed up it’s not easy to separate the savage from the civilised. Semu’s equestrian Napoleon has a elaborate uniform and a golden cape, but also a facial tattoo and a feather in his hair. Perhaps in war, as the new Mel Gibson movie suggests, there are only savages.
The most recent work in the show is the photograph, After Hans Holbein the Younger – The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (2016). It refers to Holbein’s chilling picture of 1521 in the Basel Kunstmuseum in which Christ, somewhere between Crucifixion and Resurrection, looks greenish and very obviously dead. The painting had a mesmeric effect on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who reputedly had to be dragged away from it. He would incorporate the work into his novel, The Idiot (1869), where Prince Myshkin exclaims that some people may lose their faith looking at such a picture.
Once again Semu plays Christ, but a Christ covered in Samoan tattoos. It is as if we are witnessing the death and entombment of a culture, not an individual. The problem is the same as it was for Prince Myshkin: we know this figure will rise from the dead, but the evidence of the senses suggests otherwise. Do we believe that cultural practices, stories and traditions are lost forever, or will they make a miraculous recovery? In the revitalised focus on the art and culture of Polynesia celebrated in exhibitions such as Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial, there are reasons for optimism.
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, until 10 December
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26th November, 2016