Polyphonic Reverb brings into focus practices based in Australia and Aotearoa with connections to, histories in, and ongoing resonances of the near Pacific, with emphasis on Polynesia and Melanesia. The project forms as an interconnected tapestry of new and recent projects that draw attention to Australia’s most proximous geographical region. The exhibition focuses on voices that reflect diasporic and migratory influence of the Pacific, and how, in turn, their embodied identities may be in part disembodied through distance and dislocation. Of particular note are complexities of exchange and power, and the collision and convergence of specific cultural traditions with dominating western influences.
Of centrality to Polyphonic Reverb are the crosscurrents of cultural, political and social impacts and influence occurring and evolving over generations to consider the echoes of cultural belonging, embodiment and knowledge transference in connection with places afar. On a continent such as Australia, so often regarded as geographically distant as to consider itself antipodean, how does it consider its own peripheralised nation neighbours, beyond the extraction of their resources, as sites for extraterritorial detention, or as strategically advantageous military and security positions. Polyphonic Reverb brings together works by a selection of leading artists based in Australia and Aotearoa to reflect the near Pacific, manifesting dialogue on cultural interchange, hybridity, responsibility, custodianship and colonial legacies.
Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based artist Angela Tiatia has forged a significant and internationally recognised practice that places her Samoan heritage as a central core to explore questions of decolonisation, gender, representation and inter-cultural exchange. Often featuring herself within her work, Tiatia’s work uses the body to amplify the self in terms of the embodiment of culture, history and lived experience. In the performative video works Heels (2014) and Walking the Wall (2014), the artist enacts simple gestures that visualise the connectivity between her Samoan culture and modern Western ideas of feminine beauty. In these two works, the artist reveals her malu (traditional Samoan female tattoo) while wearing the stiletto heels, converging tradition with fetishised fashion. In Walking the Wall the artist gazes directly at the viewer, defiantly confronting any reading of the diminutive Pacific Islander eroticisation that has played out so misogynistically in 20th century painting. Positioned separately in the front spaces of Gertrude, Lick (2015) presents the artist attempting to stand up within the changing tides of the ocean. With the underwater soundtrack forming an acoustic overlay discernible across all of the galleries, the work reinforces the waters that seperate yet connect all of the island nations of the Pacific. Broodingly recorded beneath the water’s undulating surface, the soundscape eerily warns of the dramatic impacts of the climate emergency that will disproportionately affect the region.
Spanning on either side of the street-viewable foyer volumes of the gallery are two bodies of sculptural works by Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based artist Stevie Fieldsend. Her Samoan ancestry similarly course through and informs her work, with Umbra (2014), giving aesthetic form to her journey of connecting with ancestral lineage. Flanked by documentation of her receiving the malu by Tafuga Tatatau (master hand-tap tattooist) Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, two works from the Umbra series stand boldly within the space. Taking reference from the translation of malu - protection, to shelter, to be shaded - the shadow play of the works is amplified by the natural light drawn in through the expansive windows. These totemic, yet sensuous forms evoke female legs, inked and grounded, ordered and poised - yet with the potential for entanglement. The new series of works, Echo’alien (2022) extension Fieldsend’s examination of her own cultural composition, shared and mixed as it is, in tune with all of the artists presenting works in Polyphonic Reverb. These three sculptural works employ the elegant fabrication of interwoven strands, as with Umbra, but instead of being grounded in an ancestral tradition, here acknowledge a sense of alienation and reflection. These figures depict, in Fieldsend’s words ‘an alien child, with a mother and father from different planets, that need to realign with her own core values and land within herself, to make her ground.’
Across the foyer spaces, Brisbane-based artist Yuriyal Eric Bridgeman has produced two expansive wall paintings that preside over the entrances to each gallery. Scrum Machine (2022) takes on motifs that extend from his suite of paintings presented within the gallery spaces, Sikiram | Büng | Scrum (2019), drawing connections between the shields from the Yuri Alaiku Clan in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the designs of rugby league guernseys. A love of the game is shared across PNG and Queensland, forming a conduit between the dual cultures and contexts within which he works. 'I decided to show my variation of shield designs... because I am also Australian. I've spent most of my life here as well. They're two permanent places that exist in my life and of course influence my practice.’ The painted works, often produced collectively with family in the village, reference the Kuman and the Wahgi shields, used in close-contact combat 'so you're actually dancing around, with about three or four or five people with spears and bow and arrows behind the shield and so these other people are doing the same thing and watching really powerful design’ enacting a ritual of protection and intimidation. Drawing comparison to the sport of rugby league, the shields mark the allegiance in the manner of opposing teams actively and aggressively competing against one another for victory.
The history of cultural interchange wrought by European colonisation in the Pacific is revisited in the work of Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based artist Greg Semu, specifically focussing on the period of German colonisation of Samoa from 1900 - 1914. While an artist in residence in Berlin, Semu sought to research this period of German history to unearth traces of Samoan influence upon this brief coloniser. Substantial records and documentation of Samoan impact may have been elusive, yet the residence gave rise to a number of new works that were subsequently exhibited in Berlin, Two Bodies, Two Landscapes - Zwei Körper, Zwei Landschaften (2016), with a singular photographic work represented within Polyphonic Reverb. In the work, Semu enacts the stereotype of the noble savage, yet, and importantly, on German soil. Depicting the artist, with his visible pe’a (traditional Samoan male tattoo) in embrace with a German woman, the highly staged image presents as a kind of reverse eroticisation of 'the other’, in this instance, a young Germanic woman. In this single image, a history of European fascination with the conquest of the Pacific is brought into focus, acknowledged, and returned with powerful intensity.
Cascading down the gallery wall is the painted black void that is Tamsen Hopkinson’s Te Kore (2016-22). At the uppermost point of the work is the profile of the coastline of Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland, where the artist was born and raised, while at the other end of the draping work, lying atop and connected to this land, is the profile of the coastline of Victoria, where the artist has for the past decade lived and worked. It’s title, Te Kore, translates to mean the great nothingness - the empty faceless void, and forms part of an important and resonant Maori creation story. In this instance, depicting the distance between two coastlines, of past and present realities, the void represents a state of latent being and unrealised potential, evocative of the porosity of cross-Tasman migration. The work, initially made with the artist’s sister, is outlined in the colour of the Mōhaka Marae, on the land that converges the iwi (Maori kinship group or tribe) of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Pahauwera, connecting the work to her whanau past and present. The black palette that contributes to the work is infused with charcoal from Yandoit, in rural Victoria, where the artist’s partner is from, further connecting and creating a familial matrix. In this work, the black represents the potential between and interconnectedness of Aotearoa and Australia.
Presenting a selection of recent paintings from the past 5 years, Graham Fletcher’s works continue his contribution to post-colonial discourse, exploring cross cultural relationships between Western and non-Western peoples. Emphasised within this series is the ongoing interrogation of the decontextualisation of cultural artefacts, and their aestheticisation within domestic architectural environments. In these bourgeois modernist settings, Fletcher adorns the interiors with objects plundered from across Oceania, removed and dislocated from both the communities and cultural rituals intended. Taking cue from historical interior magazines, the paintings appear as familiar European and North American exemplars of modernist design, yet having replaced the African and Asian object fetishisation with objects discernibly gathered from across the Pacific. Through this, Fletcher embeds the discourse within the context of Aotearoa where he was born and lives, while referencing his Samoan heritage, to consider this context’s relationship between Western colonisation and the cultures of the Pacific.
Also of mixed Samoan ancestry, Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based artist Brian Fuata’s work predominantly takes form as performance and performative activations. In his work, ideas of embodiment and presence are both endemic and points of departure. Drawing on methodologies of theatre, contemporary dance and the history of performance practices, Fuata holds himself at the centre of his work, while incorporating a resurgent questioning of the self, the presence of the self, the shadows of influence, and the interrogation of what it is to perform for the public. His work in Polyphonic Reverb manifested as a performance within the gallery spaces responding to the surrounding works, and remains as an acoustic soundscape that echoes the performance, retaining it spatially in the absence of the artist. Creating an acoustic interplay between the oceanic soundscape of Angela Tiatia’s Lick and the Auto-Audience remix produced by Sione Teumohenga (aka Lonelyspeck), Polyphonic Reverb reinforces the centrality of sound and listening within the project as a means of connecting and contributing to the fabric of its sensorial composition.
It is in this spirit that Polyphonic Reverb has been instigated – to assemble multiple voices, calling together from different spaces, echoing places from afar – to locate Melbourne within the Pacific context that it exists. So too does it acknowledge, recognise and respect the nuanced complexities of inter-cultural identities, ever embodied yet constantly in a process of ebbing and flowing, buoyant and sometimes submerging, yet ever present.