"Father of Pacific art" returns to UC
15 December 2011
Fatu Feu'u, who has been called the "father of Pacific art", has returned to the University of Canterbury as its Artist in Residence after 15 years.
Fatu Feu’u, who has been called the “father of Pacific art”, has returned to the University of Canterbury as its Artist in Residence after 15 years. College of Arts intern and UC journalism graduate Martin Moore dropped in to speak with him.
Arriving at the Te Ao Marama building, where Fatu Feu’u is based, I discovered I’d missed him by a few minutes - he’d gone out to lunch. As I waited in the foyer, I could look at one of his works - a huge painting hanging overhead, full of vibrant dashes of colour.
The title reads ‘UI PO AE FAU AO’ – Tread the night to build the day. The label below it explains that the title is a Samoan phrase referring to the work that must be put in before we can achieve success.
While waiting, the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies administrator, Moana Matthes, explained the Pacific Artist in Residence programme. Every year the selection committee invites one or sometimes two Pacific artists to the university for three months to work on their art and interact with students.
“We aim to develop people’s artwork and art-form. It has been quite nice for some of our artists who have had to be quite commercially-driven in their art-form, but they can come here for three months and move away from that and do something that they want to explore.”
The programme was the first of its kind when it was launched in 1996, and Feu’u was the first artist accepted into it. Since then 17 other artists of greater and lesser renown have used the three-month programme to develop their own artistic styles.
Feu’u, a surprisingly softly-spoken man, tells me how he returned this year to work on a book of poetry and paintings, a slightly slow process, as it is his first foray into poetry.
Looking up at the painting hanging overhead, I ask him how much he thinks his style has changed since he was here last. He shrugs and says that he doesn’t think it has changed much at all, but that others had told him differently.
A possible reason for that is that Feu’u bases much of his art on historical Pacific art-forms, particularly tapa (bark cloth) painting, exploring a long and rich artistic history to find his inspiration.
“My mind is all sunk into all the cultural things, Pacific Samoan things that I was exposed to when I was a kid. Wood cuts and weaving and lashing, those are things of my culture, that’s my art training. If you go back into the history of tapa painting, you go back 3000 years before Christ was born. That’s how ancient those things are.”
When speaking with someone whose artworks are so heavily rooted in traditional techniques, sometimes dating back thousands of years, you might be forgiven for thinking his focus would be very traditional. Yet speaking with him you can see he always has his eye on the future, and exploring new ideas.
He doesn’t restrict himself to only traditional techniques, instead combines them with modern techniques to create something new that maintains a Pacific feel. One example was combining lithography (printing using etched stone or metal) with Pacific wood carving techniques.
“Things look pristine and beautiful on stone, but when my image comes through it doesn’t look Pacific to me - it doesn’t have that part of me and part of my culture. That’s why I wanted to have wood cuts to be part of the lithography, combine the two techniques in my art. When I look at it I feel happy about it, and to me that is my art.”
I asked him why he picked this year of all years to return to Christchurch, with so much of the city still in a damaged and uncertain state. He believes art can help people process grief, and come to terms with loss, and this is why he intends to call his upcoming exhibition “Ola” (Samoan for “life”.)
“It’s a lot of emotion, raw emotion, going on now since the earthquake. I believe that art can play a part to solve those pains and emotions, not completely heal it but it should play a part to help. It helps you understand and move forward. Grieving is all part of our life process we have to go through, and then ‘Ola’ we must look forward to life, embrace it and move on.”
He speaks from experience, having gone through that loss first-hand in the 2009 Samoan tsunami. “My village, we lost a lot of people - we lost nine people, five of them are my relatives. Also, no buildings, everything just swept away into the sea. It’s a lot of work rebuilding the place just in the last two years.”
Feu’u’s long career as an artist hasn’t always been straight-forward. He describes it as a “halting process”, but it was something he had a passion for from an early age. When he arrived in New Zealand in 1976 he had been unable to afford to go to art school, so instead he did factory work to keep his head above water.
But he persisted through the years, and now dedicates much of his time to it. He has also been putting time into helping aspiring artists, and he hopes that more Pacific islanders will consider art as a possible career.
“One of the most important things in my life as an artist is to try and help young people with art, art flair. Instead of our Pacific people saying ‘become a rugby player, or doctor or lawyer’, why not become an artist?”
- The University of Canterbury will hold its Pacific Graduates evening celebration tonight (15 December). More than 40 Pacific students graduated from the University this month.
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