Paradise Paradise:The Island Myth
“…we were simultaneously lost and degraded souls to be pacified, Christianized, colonized, and civilized.”
Epeli Hau’ofa 1
The Pacific region has long been understood as an enchanting South Sea paradise far and disconnected from the corruption and discontents of the Western world. This has made it the perfect creative get away for European artists and writers alike who—through their European lens—have portrayed Polynesia as an idyllic haven of white-sand beaches and tropical mountain ranges. Think Paul Gauguin, whose lustful nude depictions of his young Tahitian lovers still line gallery walls today, in fact I came across one just last November at QAGOMA; or Robert Louis Stevenson, whose last years in Samoa, where he eventually died, became backdrops for his novels The Beach of Falesa, Catriona, The Ebb-Tide and Vailima Letters, leaving his homestead to become a museum that would solidify him in Samoa’s national history.
These art and literary works sit among many others, which in tandem with ethnographic reports and writing by explorers such as French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville, established further tales of the region. These tales, which I am calling myths, are perhaps best typified by the noble savage and the dusky maiden. Bouganville wrote about the Pacific as the garden of Eden and its women as Venus, sexually alluring and very keen. Around the same time, John Webber who served on one of Captain James Cook’s expeditions painted Poedua, the Daughter of Orio, commonly understood as the first depiction of the ‘dusky maiden’. Both Bouganville and Webber helped to solidify her mythical presence in the Western imagination.
The dusky maiden’s counterpart, the noble savage, was a natural man yet to be corrupted by civilisation. European Psycholinguist and Anthropologist, Gunter Senft, critical of these myths has commented, “Whenever Europeans feel or realise, now and again, the ‘discontents of civilisation’ (to use Siegmund Freud’s famous phrase), they seem to find relief in old, new or revived noble savage myths.”2 These examples, which are only a few among many, emphasise a Western desire for escapism, the Other becoming nothing more than a subject of fantasy, crafted for European enjoyment. And it was artists and writers who embedded these stereotypes into the minds of the impressionable European public. Western artists literally and figuratively painted over the agency and power of Pacific men and women with derogatory and belittling views.
Furthermore, it was not just Pacific people who fell victim to these belittling views, but also the region itself. After crossing huge expanses of ocean, European and American explorers promoted the notion of the South Seas as tiny “islands in a vast sea”,3 drawing imaginary lines across it and confining people to tiny spaces.4 This perspective posits all of the islands and islanders—except for Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia—as being “too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated.”5
But what’s wrong with being depicted as sexually attractive people from beautiful lands? Well maybe nothing. However, we only need to trace back to the devastating mining practices of the Panguna Mine in Bougainville, the nuclear testing of Bikini Atoll or the multiple Islands of Hawaiʻi, Tutuila and Guam long occupied for military purposes, to realise just how indispensable the world sees the region. Ultimately, these myths of idyllic islands with naïve inhabitants make way for Western assertions of power. While the artists, writers and explorers I have mentioned above are from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, their impacts are still felt today. For much of the Western world the Pacific is the honeymoon destination or the Survivor film location, nothing more.
The reality however is that the islands in the Pacific weren’t naïve isolated little drops in the ocean, but civilisations which had expert sailing traditions with expansive and elaborate trade systems. Their world was a large one, where people moved, migrated and married across the ocean, with the characteristics of complex regions. With this frequent movement, politics and religion were constantly changing across the region with dissenting attempts to over-throw existing power a frequent occurrence.6 This understanding helps us to move beyond the economic and geographic determinist view that places us as dispensable to the surrounding larger powers.
With a couple of hundreds of years having passed since colonisation of the region, the Pacific is now a part of the globalised world. I for one do not have the sailing abilities of my ancestors. However, I do have another perhaps unforeseen way to connect across the ocean.
In 1989, a fairly unrecognized technological breakthrough occurred, the World Wide Web was invented,7 an undeniable transformation for global knowledge infrastructure. While users at this early stage were small in number due to limited technologies, before long the number of internet users were doubling every year, and by the late 2000s there were more than 400 million users worldwide.8 The internet, arguably one of the biggest perpetuators of globalisation, promised to serve as an engine of economic growth for transforming developing and industrialised nations.9 The idea was that the internet would eventually serve multiple functions as a library, classroom, communication device, marketplace, entertainment centre and any other form of information source in one single, democratised digital sphere. With the intention of broadening and enhancing access to information and communication for remote rural areas and lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods, it was hailed for its democratisation of information and unprecedented connectivity. In theory, if someone had access to a computer or device, and the internet, they would be able to connect through email, online chat, video chat and social media networks, making it an instant and inexpensive form of communication.
However, despite the potential and the declared intention behind the invention, critics have since argued that the internet still primarily serves the industrialized world, creating a digital divide. This was emphasised in UNESCO’s New World Information Order which involved controversial debates between 1972 and 1985. The order was commissioned to investigate the imbalances of global information flows in fears that it would just continue to perpetuate the same elitist knowledge production. The commission documented the dominance of commercial and military communications infrastructures by industrialized nations, and proposed stronger international regulations of the media system, based on alternative development paradigms that stressed cultural identity, independence, and self-reliance10 – a position contrary to the United States desire for “free flow of information”.11
At the core of these issues is the fact that from its inception, online space has been tied to market opportunities. So while in theory the technology creates a ‘flat world’, in reality it is still tied to privilege, access, and resourcing. This is not only a matter of having access to computers and the infrastructures of the internet but also the commercialisation of global communication. The free flow of information presented brand new market opportunities. Yet despite these socio-economic barriers, Islanders have been some of the earliest adopters of the technology with Tonga, Samoa, Trinidad and Jamaica being active on the internet since its early days.12
The point here is that, the Island and the Islander, as Western concepts, are drawn from stereotypes formed by European self-discontent more than anything else. And so, within an art context, these stereotypes from the Western imagination are imposed onto Islander art conceptually, aesthetically and formally. Yet Island practices are not idyllic little islands, they are just as connected with the realities of the contemporary world as all other art practices are. What’s important to remember is that the depictions of the idyllic beaches, noble savages and dusky maidens were not Island depictions of the self to start with.
There are of course a number of contemporary artists who are tackling these myths head on; two key practices in particular are those of Lisa Reihana (Ngati Tu, Ngati Rangi, Ngāpuhi) and Rosanna Raymond (Samoa). Reihana’s animation In Pursuit of Venus (infected) (2017), reinterprets Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique (1804), a printed wallpaper by French manufacturer Joseph Dufour. Dufour’s wall paper was another artistic portrayal of the region based on travel writing and artistic impressions undertaken by Captain Cook, Bougainville and de la Perouse. In Reihana’s version, the latest digital technologies are employed to animate the wallpaper, moving beyond Dufour’s Enlightenment for a more nuanced perspective. Reihana’s historical revision includes key historical figures and makes visible historical narratives such as trade, sexual exploitation, violence and the death of Cook.
In a slightly different take, Raymond zooms in on a particular myth, the dusky maiden, which she re-constructs through performance, poetry, installation, and costume and fashion design. Having been practicing for over 20 years, Raymond activates a dynamic relationship of vā (time and space) to collapse time and use the body and genealogical matter as an ancestral presence. She tackles the subject of her body head on, as being subject to the colonial gaze, while also exercising the power to reclaim it.
The contemporary implications of colonisation for Islanders makes it an obvious and urgent subject for art making. While there are a number of artists tackling this particular moment in a variety of ways, there are also a multitude of experiences, interests, and mediums being used by Islander artists across the globe, which have generated a depth and a breadth of artistic outcomes, exemplified here in Aotearoa.
Artists such as Louisa Afoa (Samoa) explore themes that span their own body politics and the racialized body within suburbia, to nostalgic recollections of domestic life and state housing. Janet Lilo’s (Ngāpuhi, Samoa, Niue) fervent documentary and installation practice captures urban life from a first-person perspective, and explores collective behaviours on social media. John Vea’s (Tonga) time based practice explores specific aspects of the urban Islander experience, such as the labour schemes between Aotearoa New Zealand and Pacific, and the markers of poverty.
While many of these artists will be brushed with the simplified strokes of identity politics, let’s not overlook the formal concerns of their art. The emerging practices of Christina Pataialii (Samoa) and Salome Tanuvasa (Samoa/Tonga) both tap into very different histories of mark making. While Pataialii’s large gestural paintings combine global and local influences to tell stories of nostalgia and dislocation, Tanuvasa’s instinctual drawing practice distils moments of pause, contemplating what can hold someone’s attention.
The speed and the intensity of the adoption of the internet in the region has proven that Islanders and Islands are not separate from the rest of the world, with many Islanders actually now living in amongst the developed world, shock horror. And while many Island practices do take on colonial myths through revisionist lenses, Island subjectivities in and of themselves are vast and varied things. Island practices are evolving to a never before seen health, and yet artists from these regions are still suffering from historic simplification.
- <p>Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘The Ocean in Us’, in <em>The Contemporary Pacific</em>, University of Hawai'i Press Center for Pacific Islands Studies, 1998, 392-410. <a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Gunter Senft, ‘Weird Papalagi and a Fake Samoan Chief: A footnote to the noble savage myth’, in <em>Rongorongo Studies: A forum for Polynesian philology</em>, 1999, Volume 9: 23-32-62-75. <a href="#fnref1:2" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘Our Sea of Islands’, in <em>The Contemporary Pacific</em>, 1994, Volume 6 (1): 147–161. <a href="#fnref1:3" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Ibid. <a href="#fnref1:4" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Ibid. <a href="#fnref1:5" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Albert Wendt, ‘Towards a New Oceania’, in Mana Review, 1976, Volume 1 (1): 49-60. <a href="#fnref1:6" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Pippa Norris, <em>Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide</em>, Cambridge University Press, Massachusetts, 2001, 3. <a href="#fnref1:7" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Ibid. <a href="#fnref1:8" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Ibid, 6. <a href="#fnref1:9" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Soenke Zehle, ‘New World Information and Communication Order’, in <em>The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization</em>, John Wiley & Sons, 2012. <a href="#fnref1:10" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Ibid. <a href="#fnref1:11" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Marianne Franklin, <em>Postcolonial Politics, the Internet, and Everyday Life</em>, Routledge, 2005, 28. <a href="#fnref1:12" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>