ACTease JULY 2014
Having spent most of my childhood years growing up on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, I was excited to discover that one of the National Gallery of Australia’s latest exhibitions, Atua: Sacred gods from Polynesia (until 3 August) focuses on Polynesian culture; in particular the significance of their gods.
The Polynesians were an adventurous bunch. Over the course of the last 3000 years, they travelled thousands of kilometres to settle many islands throughout the Pacific, including western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa), the Cook Islands, the Society Islands including Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, followed by Hawaii and Aotearoa New Zealand.
One fascinating aspect of Polynesian culture is their ‘Atua’, or their gods. Oral records reveal that when a new island was settled, one of the first things the chief would do was to set up a sacred enclosure for his atua, which accompanied him. “Atua were part of life on every level of society, and most atua were represented by an artwork,” says Michael Gunn, Senior Curator of Pacific Art.
There was a hierarchy in Polynesian society, and the ancestry of the aristocracy (the ariki) could be traced “back to the moment when one of their ancestors made love with a god…For aristocrats to maintain their semi-divine status, they needed the atua and their presence, located in art objects that became the focus of their power”. Atua were also used to help make decisions when it came to conflict and warfare. Often the enemy would set out to seize the atua during a raid on the opposition, as without their atua they would lose their will to fight. There are even stories that “Some societies thought that Western explorers or traders visiting in ships were atua. Women in their hundreds would swim out to the ships so that they could make love with an atua–to the astonishment of the sailors. The women would climb up the anchor chains, crawl through gun ports and climb the rigging, with the beleaguered captain hard put to regain control of his ship and his men”.
The arrival of missionaries saw the conversion of Polynesian people to Christianity, ultimately leading to the demise of many atua. This exhibition includes pieces from over 30 museum collections around the world. The collection is certainly impressive. I was most fascinated by the beautifully intricate objects that were carefully crafted from natural materials, such as wood, stone and natural fibre and fashioned with simple tools. “The exhibition explores the relationship between atua and art, between spirits and sculpture, between gods and priests, between women and men. It looks at some of the most unique works of art in the Polynesian world and tries to make sense of an enduring mystery surrounding religious objects and their association with belief in gods,” says Gunn. My personal favourites were the intricately carved Pole club – apa’apai (probably 18th century), wood and marine ivory that greets visitors at the exhibition entrance, and the Maori storehouse outer threshold – paepae 19th century wood. This exhibition presents a rare opportunity for viewers to experience an extensive collection of unique treasures of cultural and historical significance.
Another of our closest neighbours, Bali, has been the source of inspiration for NGA exhibition, Bali: Island of the Gods. This exhibition celebrates the rich, colourful culture of one of our closest Asian neighbours through a diverse collection of works, including textiles, paintings, sculpture, as well as ritual objects and architectural pieces. Bali has the largest Hindu community outside of India, and is influenced by Hindu festivals and celebrations. The exhibition features beautiful examples of geringsing – a type unique Indonesian textile only created in one village in east Bali. “Through double ikat, the most complex of techniques, both the warp and the weft threads are separately tied into the designs, which only become evident when interlaced during the weaving process.”
Beautiful painted hangings displayed in temples and shrines that feature imagery from Hindu legends and symbols are also featured in the exhibition. “Included in the exhibition are two fine ider-ider, narrow valances illuminating scenes from the great Hindu epics that decorate the eaves of open air pavilions: one ider-ider from the collection of the late Professor Anthony Forge is over 17 metres long.” A variety of sculptures are also included in the exhibition – ranging “from overtly Hindu images, such as the god Vishnu mounted on his vehicle the giant Garuda bird, to ferocious guardian creatures whose destructive powers balance the benevolence of other deities to maintain cosmic order”. This exhibition proudly proves that there is more to Bali than the beach and Bintang.
• Atua: Sacred gods from Polynesia & Bali: Island of the Gods, National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Parkes Place, Parkes Canberra, until 3 August 2014 – nga.gov.au
Walking is an everyday activity that is often overlooked, so I was intrigued by M16’s exhibition, Wanderlust, which draws inspiration from walking. The exhibition features work from eleven emerging Canberra artists, including: Kate Barker, Hannah Bath, Alexander Boynes, Chris Carmody, Amy Dunn, Shellaine Godbold, Annika Harding, Elena Papanikolakis, Jacklyn Peters, Fiona Veikkanen and Jonathan Webster. Works are varied and showcase a variety of mediums from painting and drawing to more contemporary media. It is fascinating to see how the artists tackle this topic.
“The act of moving through space is made visible in abstract and sometimes more representational ways, but is always very personal” in Shellaine Godbold, Elena Papanikolakis and Jonathan Webster’s paintings and drawings. The local neighbourhood is the focus for Fiona Veikkanen and Jacklyn Peters, who “have used walking around their suburban neighbourhoods as a starting point for surprising works based on feelings and observations about these familiar routes”.
The way walkers move through space interests Chris Carmody and Annika Harding. “Carmody is interested in keep clear signs painted in the streets, and how walkers respond to these, while Harding investigates how signposted directions influence and frame bushwalkers’ experience of landscapes.”
Some of the artists observe walkers: “Hannah Bath’s drawings remove the beautifully detailed walkers from their environment, Amy Dunn’s shadowy figures move through a mysterious and haunting landscape of light and dark”, while Alexander Boynes and Kate Barker have chosen to explore walking in groups: “Boynes’ works explore diaspora and migration, figures unravelling and reforming as they move through space. Barker explores marching, an activity with a long tradition which disciplines individuals’ movements to become unnaturally in unison.”
Also at M16 this month, Tony Dalla Venezia presents an inaugural collection of pen and ink line drawings: “The intricate meanderings are the result of letting the mind and hand wander freely”, and Emma Le Strange explores: “Taking figures in unusual poses and reinterpreting them in soft pastel with high contrast” in her latest exhibition, Never Without. Le Strange’s works offer a unique interpretation on anatomical drawing.
• Wanderlust, Detail & Never Without, M16 Art space, 21 Blaxland Crescent Griffith, until 6 July 2014.
The National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Beauty and strength: Michael Riley (until 17 August) is a beautiful collection of black and white portraits from indigenous artist, Michael Riley (1960-2004). Riley created these images between 1984 and 1990 and “they stand as an intricately connected group portrait of the vibrant urban-based Indigenous arts community in Sydney’s inner-west at a formative moment”. I am particularly drawn to Riley’s clever use of light and shadow falling across the faces of portraits of Telphia 1990, Darrell 1989, Kristina 1986, Delores 1990 and Kristina 1984.
• Beauty and strength: Michael Riley, National Portrait Gallery, until 17 August 2014 – portrait.gov.au
Courtney Symes is a Canberra-based writer, small business owner, and mother. When she’s not writing, you will find her enjoying a run around one of Canberra’s beautiful parks and seeking out Canberra’s best coffee and cheesecake haunts with the family. Read more at alittlepinkbook.blogspot.com.au