new zealand electronic poetry centre

John Puhiatau Pule



Nicholas Thomas

Catalogue notes for the exhibition Savage Island Hiapo. Djamu Gallery, Australian Museum. Curated by Nicholas Thomas, Dec 1998-Jan 1999.


The barkcloth of the Pacific represents one of the region’s most remarkable art forms. Known generically as tapa, plain and decorated cloth was produced for a host of quotidian, ceremonial, and ritual uses right across the region, from insular southeast Asia to Hawaii and Easter Island. Intricately patterned tapa fascinated early European visitors and considerable quantities were collected to end up in museum displays and stores across Europe, America and Australasia.

But this interest was ambivalent. The quality of pattern was favourably commented upon, but tapa was doubly diminished as an ethnographic art and a women’s art. Complex stamped, stencilled, watermarked, rubbed and painted designs were taken merely as ‘decoration’; pieces of tapa were seen merely as bearers of these decorations, not as whole visual artifacts, and were accordingly often cut up into ‘samples’, which were frequently bound into albums for sale. Books on Oceanic art typically include just a few token images of tapa, among dozens featuring the classic male-produced ‘tribal art’ genres – masks and sculptures. In museum displays, barkcloth has frequently been used simply as a backdrop to objects in cases, presented in rolled-up bundles, or otherwise exhibited in ways that preclude viewers from grasping the visual power of what are, in fact, complex and compelling works of art. This exhibition is one of the first to acknowledge this power. It does not attempt to present a survey of the rich barkcloth collections in the Australian Museum, but places fine examples from just one Pacific Island – Niue – in dialogue with works of contemporary art.

Niue is a small nation to the east of Samoa. Its Polynesian population resisted the visit of Captain James Cook in1774 and subsequent efforts during the 19 th century to establish trading contacts and Christian missions. ‘Savage Island’ – Cook’s name – thus stuck and has long been resented by Niueans, though it does manifest the power they exercised to exclude foreigners from their beaches, villages and gardens, for the better part of a century. Even after Christianity established itself on the island in the second half of the 19 th century, Niueans found ways of sustaining their autonomy and extending their sociality and cultural expression through labour migration to Samoa last century and 20 th century New Zealand since the Second World War. The contemporary artist John Pule whose works speak back to the Niuean hiapo or barkcloths included here, is a product of this migration. Born in Niue in 1962, he has spent most of his life in New Zealand, though in the last few years, he has done much travelling, teaching, art work and performance in various parts of the Pacific – back in Niue, in Fiji, Rotuma and Hawaii.

The ‘Savage Island’ epithet marks the extreme ambiguity of European responses to the Pacific. On the one hand, Polynesia has generally been celebrated as a benign, exotic and erotic region, as a site of paradise and pleasure; initially as an arcadia or utopia, more recently as a tourist destination. Polynesian culture has been diminished and commodified through tourist representation, in music, performance, and art. ‘Savage Island’ reminds us that there has always been another side to this bland celebration that has rejected and denigrated people who did not welcome Europeans, who were not ready to give away food and land, and who did not want to enter into sexual relations or exchange relations with colonisers.

The beauty and power of ‘Savage Island’ barkcloths reminds us of this contradiction. The visual dynamism of these hiapo also points to common misunderstandings of Indigenous art traditions. ‘Tradition’ is only the right word if we appreciate that traditions could change and develop rapidly, and that Indigenous traditions could be constituted through innovation. Although we know too little about the early history of Niuean barkcloth to define styles and changes with any precision, it appears that pre-European-contact styles responded dynamically to external influences, perhaps especially those channelled through Samoan mission teachers who, with white missionaries were active on the island from the mid-19 th century onwards. Niue hiapo share stylistic features – the use of botanical motifs within a grid, in particular – with Samoan cloth, though hiapo also possess distinctive features. They stand out, in particular, for the experimental nature of the freehand painting (which does not feature the dark, filled-in sections typical of Samoan cloth). The examples included here are remarkable for the diversity of their motifs and for the contrived irregularity of patterning within a grid. It is this irregularity that makes them much more than sets of ‘decorations’: this is a highly animated visual system, one that exhibited the virtuosity of the painters and was probably intended to express and convey the mana or spiritual power of their groups.

John Pule’s paintings and prints are loosely but powerfully inspired by the hiapo and by the violent and symbolically potent history of ‘Savage Island’. He does not reproduce motifs as though he were simply reviving a dormant tradition. His painting acknowledges the hiapo as a potent ancestral force, but as one that must be deferred to in a special way precisely because the world has changed enormously since the hiapo were painted for funerals and for other ceremonial circumstances. We occupy a new time and space, and Pule’s paintings are accordingly new if, nevertheless, grounded in the time, space and inspiration of Niuean history. He takes that inspiration from the hiapo, but gives something in return as he points to a striking, enigmatic and neglected tradition, to some of the great paintings of 19 th century Polynesia.  

Pule uses the grid to reveal the co-presence of many different life situations and life forces in the present. Some of these situations are historical, some are of the here and now of the city, though all are present in some sense. He depicts strange and potent mythic creatures – engaged not only in creative acts, but often in predatory attitudes – the voyages of Oceanic peoples and the arrival of the missionaries who, the artist feels, destroyed so much. There is a good deal of grief around history and personal loss in his art, but a good deal of humour and passion too, even in performance pieces that respond to the European traditions of exoticism, eroticism and voyeurism that have consistently reduced the real and hard lives of Pacific islanders – lived out as they are on remote and fragile edges of careless and capricious global economies – to the visual clichés of the postcard and of Hollywood. Both new and old ‘Savage Island Hiapo’ invite us to acknowledge and visit the worlds that lie beyond those clichés.

Nicholas Thomas

Last updated 25 September, 2005