Interdisciplinary artist Greg Semu was born and raised in Auckland, Aotearoa / New Zealand and is of Samoan heritage. Themes of people’s movement between territories and cultural authority inform his practice, and the impact of colonial occupation and introduction of Christianity on indigenous cultures across the Pacific is a major subject of his work. By referencing and re-imagining epic European history paintings, Semu parodies their portrayal of First Nations people, which he interprets ‘as crude concoctions of myth and romanticism’. His work challenges accepted history by substituting European narratives of settlement with those that survive in Pacific oral histories.
Semu’s The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific), 2014–16, focuses on two celebrated nineteenth-century European history paintings: Louis John Steele and Charles F. Goldie’s The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand, 1898, and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, 1804–05, both of which dramatise survival at sea. While growing up in Auckland, Semu was captivated by the beauty, pain and suffering of The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand. Although an icon of the Auckland Art Gallery, the work has polarised public opinion; Māori people have censured its historically inaccurate depiction of Māori seafarers as emaciated victims desperately clinging to survival, rather than as skilful navigators on deliberate voyages of exploration. Moreover, as Roger Blackley states, ‘The depiction of a desperate band hurtling forward on a broken craft represents a graphic realisation of the widespread colonial mythology of the “dying race”’.1 Roger Blackley, ‘Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie: The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898)’, Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 7, no. 5, Sep.–Oct. 2001, p. 914, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2631871/pdf/11795236.pdf>, accessed 10 June 2016.
The subject and composition of The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand parallels that of The Raft of the Medusa. The latter depicts the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of what is today Mauritania, and the tragic starvation of all but fifteen of 147 passengers set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft. Semu was struck by the close visual similarities between the two paintings: Goldie and Steele’s appropriation of the earlier work validated his reading of The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand as a construction in the grand narrative tradition of European history painting.
The illumination of the light boxes in Semu’s The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific) finds it roots in the classical European chiaroscuro painting technique used to create dramatic visual effects of light and shadow and to delineate forms emerging out of atmospheric darkness. A consideration of great European Old Master paintings in the Louvre gave Semu the idea to digitally recreate their radical perspective and heroic compositions so the viewer could become involved in the narrative – extending the action beyond the surface of the painting and into the viewer’s space. Semu first developed this approach in his series The Battle of the Noble Savage, 2007, commissioned by the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, and The Last Cannibal Supper … Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians, 2010, commissioned by the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia. For these bodies of work the artist worked in close collaboration with Māori and Kanak advisers and actors to restage European battles and scenes from the Passion of Christ from a Pacific Islander perspective.
In 2014 Semu re-enacted and digitally captured The Arrival of the Medusa and The Raft of the Medusa during a four-week residency on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Integral to the success of the project was Semu’s collaboration with three specialists: installation and performance artist Ani O’Neill; Ta Tatau artist Croc Tatau; and Motone producer Glenda Tuaine. These individuals connected Semu with local artisans, professionals and elders within the community and enabled him to develop his understanding of Cook Islander culture and protocol.
The artist constructed elaborate sets and cast twenty-two Cook Island residents as actors to create pictures of extraordinary detail and dramatic intensity. Semu purposefully selected local residents because their physiques accorded with his vision of strong and healthy Māori seafarers; in contrast to the classically idealised models seen in Géricault’s painting and the emaciated survivors in The Arrival. The location of the shoot, Raratonga, was also a metaphorical ‘last stop’ for boats on the Pacific Express migration line. A waka (double-hulled canoe) used in Māori migration voyages was carefully reproduced for the re-staging of The Arrival, which was later that same day stripped back and transformed into the simple raft modelled on the wreck of the Méduse. Semu extensively edited, reconfigured and deconstructed his digital photographs to create memorable compositions that appropriate art history and simultaneously provoke and disrupt accepted views of history.
The monumental light-box images assembled in the dark space of The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika represent Semu’s brilliant final vision of two European history paintings that have captured his imagination. The digital photographic works The Arrival and The Raft, presented as C-type transparencies lit by strategically positioned fluorescent tubes, simulate and celebrate the visual effects of the original paintings, dramatically illuminating the musculature, physical struggle and intense facial expressions of Māori seafarers being drawn towards land. Semu has achieved this provocative body of work by working as a stage director, choreographer, photographer and editor as well as by thinking as a painter. By drawing the viewers into the human drama of these historical sea voyages and making them sense the power, pain and beauty of the paintings which inspired him, Semu prompts a reconsideration of these historical events from different perspectives.
The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific) is supported by Creative New Zealand and the Wallace Arts Trust.
Roger Blackley, ‘Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie: The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898)’, Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 7, no. 5, Sep.–Oct. 2001, p. 914, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2631871/pdf/11795236.pdf>, accessed 10 June 2016.