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Spirit of Samoa
The Press New Zealand

In his richly textured images, Fatu Feu'u powerfully evokes the Pacific. He talks to CHRISTOPHER MOORE on the eve of his new Christchurch exhibition.

Fatu Feu'u is the name on some very significant moments of contemporary New Zealand art.

He is the face in the hazy photograph on the publicity material for his new Christchurch exhibition. He is the quiet, deep voice at the end of the telephone early on Monday morning.

You know from photos that Feu'u is a large imposing man with a broad face which can look intensely into an embryonic painting in progress or crinkle into a huge smile.

What fails to emerge from all the words that have been written about him the intangible quality is his mana, which comes partly from the two Samoan chiefly titles he carries and from his role as "father" of Pacific contemporary art in New Zealand.

Fatu Feu'u carries the chiefly titles of ali'i and tulafale. Ali'i are elders carrying the ultimate authority in their extended families. Tulafale carry the knowledge of history, tradition and genealogy. Bestowed on him through his father's and mother's families, they make Fatu Feu'u a deeply respected figure both within and outside New Zealand's Samoan community, reflecting his standing as a senior member of the Pacific Island community and as one of the leading voices in contemporary New Zealand art. The father of Pacific art. The cultural bridge builder.

Fa'aSamoa is a word that has become closely associated with Fatu Feu'u's painting, sculpture and graphic art. Best translated as the essential Samoan beliefs and culture, the spirit of fa'aSamoa permeates his art and shapes his belief that family and community relationships are an individual's essence. Fa'aSamoa has also sustained and supported him at times when life was difficult, future prospects bleak and his dreams of becoming an artist distant.

Born in 1946, Fatu Feu'u migrated to New Zealand in 1966, working in labouring jobs while clinging to a passion for the visual arts. By the early 1970s, unable to attend art school, he painted during the weekends and evenings, working as colour consultant and designer for an Auckland textile company.

Feu'u could easily have remained a Sunday painter, the artist reluctant to exhibit his works publicly, preferring instead to hide them away.

Enter a trio of Kiwi falangi artistic godfathers. Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont and Pat Hanley saw Feu'u's paintings and promptly advised the young Samoan to take up full-time painting but to use his own Pacific voice. He must, they told him, rediscover fa'aSamoa by returning to Samoa and exposing himself to the culture which was an essential part of him.

Fatu Feu'u took their advice, but back in Samoa the young migrant found himself caught between two very different worlds. Initially it was difficult to gain information from elders and older people who were reluctant to communicate with him. But Fatu Feu'u is a stubborn man. He persisted in his search. He met writers like Albert Wendt, talked with elders and sat by the practitioners of traditional Samoan arts, especially the makers of siapo, the tapa or bark cloth, and the creators of Samoan tatau or tattoos. Siapo's grid-like structure and tatau's formalistic designs were merged with contemporary issues to create a distinctive artistic voice.

The four-petalled flower, the frigate bird, carved figures and the patterns of sennit lashing around wood and stone were incorporated into Feu'u's art.

After he returned to New Zealand, Feu'u created a series of paintings which became va'aomanu, or vessels of knowledge, holding a rich evocation of memory, migration and reconciliation. This was contemporary art that spanned the gap between two cultures with Feu'u's potent visual voice.

"Feu'u's practice is not simply a refashioning of bark-cloth imagery or an appropriation of a tradition. His motifs address social obligation, authority and power and the balance among them," says Karen Stevenson, senior lecturer in fine arts at the University of Canterbury.

In 1990, Feu'u began work on a large mural for Auckland's Aotea Centre. What emerged was a work that traced the journey of the Polynesian people to Aotearoa; a contemporary artwork described by one commentator as "a national narrative for New Zealand's Polynesians".

Five years later, he won the Wallace Art Award for Ivi'ivia, a painting dominated by three archetypal Polynesian figures placed between symbols for sun and moon and above a mesh of siapo-inspired patterns.

A decade later, the language of early Samoan chants inspired Feu'u to paint a series of canvases featuring explosions of vivid colour against sombre backgrounds. In 2001, he was exhibiting works that explored the lives of the early Samoan migrants to New Zealand. These were deeply personal works which represented an individual and a collective summation of history and human experience.

Feu'u has also discovered a new creative medium poetry. He remains unpublished, he adds with a rich chuckle. Too expensive. Too slow. Better instead to incorporate the written word into his art.

"I write my poetry on the paintings. Whoever buys a painting gets my poetry as well. Some of the poems are written in old Samoan derived from the language spoken by the orators at welcomes and ceremonies. Today's generation often doesn't understand it, but it's a way for me to get things out which excite me and which were part of my childhood memories of hearing orators. Other poems are in English. I don't have a gift for writing like other people but this is another way of expressing myself. Another medium."

What will Christchurch see in his latest exhibition?

"Woodcuts and paintings mostly paintings.

"They are new paintings with slightly different themes. My work evolves all the time. It's a driving force. That's what happens when you paint. Too many ideas. It's just a matter of working these out. What can I say?

* Fatu Feu'u: Alamakua, Salamander Gallery (Christchurch Arts Centre), February 15 to March 6.

Photo at the right>
SPIRIT OF SAMOA: In his richly textured images, Fatu Feu'u powerfully evokes the Pacific.