Big Ideas for a Big Island

I’ve been getting an army of messages lately from what I can see as an emerging group of super trooper arty ambassadors. I don’t know them, but finally some real thought being given to cultural expression, its forms its future and where it all comes from and how to sustain it.

I have to sit down and try to work out if they are all working together or something, but the latest one is from one of our very own Super Kulcha Woman, Joycelin Leahy who most will know lately from Pacific Storms. Oh and speaking of Pacific Storms she’s finally scored a home for the exhibition at the Waterfront Place in Brisbane. They’ve got an opening for the exhibition on the 16th Dec and Mal Meninga will be the special guest for the night.(Get details of opening here)

But okay so getting back to these cultural examinations, here is an excerpt of their latest news. This is just one of a number of discussions and I can imagine that there must be an ocean of paperwork on these sorts of subjects. But how can they become practical and relevant goals? Not sure if I have an answer for that yet, but my eye’s are peeled and my ears are on the ground to learn where all this might be heading. Maybe towards a cultural registry or institute perhaps? So anyway here goes…

Critical workshop in Wollongong tests the waters on future directions for Pacific arts

A workshop intensive to share research and pool ideas related to the discussion and promotion of contemporary Pacific arts in Australia was this week hosted by the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies at Wollongong University.

Australia, the Big Island in relation to the Pacific, generally looks to New Zealand when seeking to represent contemporary Pacific arts practice. Artists from smaller Pacific islands may be granted the occasional look-in, the workshop suggested, while Australian-based Pacific content is largely appreciated as ‘decoration’, with an emphasis on community- and tradition-based performance.

The Pacific Diaspora in Australia is currently around 400,000 people, approximately 2% of the Australian population. The number of contemporary artists among this particular group presents a vibrant but consistently untapped and overlooked dimension of the Australian art scene.

The Big Island workshop comprised artists, curators and academics. Noted art historian Karen Stevenson, author of The Frangipani is Dead (2009) among other seminal Pacific arts-related publications, ‘crossed the ditch’ (from New Zealand) to deliver a pointed keynote address. Chief among her paper’s concerns is a critical notion of what constitutes ‘contemporary’ Pacific art: how does ‘contemporary’ evade the persistent paradigms of authenticity and primitivism; how can it accommodate the region’s plethora of tradition-based practices?

The workshop also involved Susan Cochrane, a pioneering Australian academic/curator in the field, who introduced a major exposition of Papua New Guinean art currently in process, in partnership with the National Museum of Australia. Brisbane-based curator Joycelin Leahy detailed the challenges and rewards in mounting her recent survey exhibition Pacific Storms, which included some Australian-based artists among its 30-plus Pacific contemporary artists, and which looks set for a sequel in 2011. Leahy called for professional development opportunities for emerging Pacific curators and artists working within and outside Australia.

Bandjalang Aboriginal artist/curator Jenny Fraser’s participation in the workshop highlighted the symbolic and effective role that Aboriginal people, the ‘old people’ of the Pacific, can play as independent cultural brokers in the region. Fraser has demonstrated as much with her ‘other APT’, an exhibition initiative begun in 2006 as a riposte to the lack of Aboriginal and Pacific Islander-related content in the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)’s Asia Pacific Triennial (APT). Fraser’s second ‘other APT’ will be a virtual exhibition ( to coincide with QAG’s APT6 which opens 5 December 2009. Washington University’s Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris spoke at the workshop of an artist, the late Wendy Choulai, and a time (the late ’90s) when the APT was apparently more Pacific-friendly.

The workshop was also an opportunity for postgraduate students to share their progress, with artist/researchers Annalise Friend (University of Wollongong), Torika Bolatagici (College of Fine Arts, University of NSW) and Keren Ruki (Australian National University, Canberra) speaking passionately on and around their respective practices. The current marginalisation of Pacific arts in Australia is reflected by the dearth of university teaching and research in this area, as signalled in the report, A National Strategy for the Study of the Pacific (2009), published by The Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies (established in 2006), and made available at the workshop.

Though relatively small in scale, the workshop was decidedly big on expertise, talent and ideas, with a view towards supporting related discrete events and towards the realisation of a regular hub venue and/or event within Australia for the ongoing critical appreciation and promotion of contemporary Pacific arts.

Other workshop participants (not mentioned above) included Ross Searle, Gary Lee, David Broker, Paul Sharrad, Lisa Havilah, Peter Eklund and the workshop convenors, Dr Pamela Zeplin (University of South Australia) and Associate Professor Paul Sharrad (University of Wollongong). The papers presented at the workshop will form part of a future publication. Further details:

Maurice O’Riordan
Art Monthly Australia

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