In Aotearoa New Zealand ‘Pacific art’ as a descriptor is taken for granted. As a curator—New Zealand–born with Sāmoan and English heritage—the question of labelling frequently comes up for me. In addition to being described as a ‘Pacific art curator’, I’m also placed in positions where I too need to contextualise and situate artists’ practices, and all too frequently I find myself typing ‘Pacific art’ into essays without much thought.
A clear definition of Pacific art is hard to find in any exhibition text, publication or funding agreement. But, in general, the label is used to describe art made both by people living in the Pacific Islands—an unclear term, which I’ll return to—as well as people of Pacific Island heritage living in Aotearoa New Zealand. In part a tool of affirmative action, the description is endorsed by a number of significant institutional bodies. At a funding level, organisations such as Creative New Zealand’s Pacific advisory group or Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust align their support to Pacific arts. Academic studies follow a similar theme: university papers are structured around ‘Contemporary Pacific Art’ and museum institutions and council governance likewise maintain departments, staff and gallery spaces dedicated to Pacific peoples, art and culture.
The staunch presence of ‘Pacific art’ as an institutional and equity framework has directly influenced the prominence of ‘Pacific art’ as an accepted exhibition parameter and premise, particularly with regards to group or survey exhibitions. The term is used both for exhibitions with a historical focus, such as Pacific Encounters (2008), Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, which comprised indigenous art made between the 18th and 20th centuries, through to exhibitions of contemporary art, such as Celebrating Connections: An Exhibition of Contemporary Pacific Artists (2010), The Art at Mark’s Garage gallery, Honolulu; Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific (2004), Asia Society Museum, New York, and Dateline: Contemporary Art from the Pacific (2007–2008), Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Germany.
The ubiquity of the ‘Pacific Art’ label belies the ambiguous and inconsistent use of ‘Pacific’ as a regional descriptor. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the ‘Pacific’, when used without qualification, usually doesn’t encompass the full ‘Pacific Ocean’, from which the adjective derives. Rather, the ‘Pacific’ is used more conventionally as an abbreviation of the Pacific Islands; a term that consistently excludes Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia but is otherwise used somewhat at will. In some instances, the Pacific Islands stretch from Palau to the Pitcairn Islands and in others, the term only refers to the smaller territory of Polynesia.1 As writer and curator Reuben Friend notes, this use of the word ‘Pacific’ in reference to a much smaller grouping of nations privileges the most central region of Oceania, maligning other nations without overtly declaring that bias.2
Recent government initiatives have created a newer term, Pasifika,3 used to describe a group of diaspora peoples. Developed by the New Zealand Ministry of Education to describe both Pacific Island migrants and their descendants, the term ‘Pasifika’ is readily acknowledged by other departments as ‘one of convenience used to encompass a diverse range of peoples from the South Pacific region now living in this country’.4 Though the terms Pacific and Pasifika are now commonly used interchangeably, like synonyms used to avoid repetition, Pasifika deliberately denotes a collective of ‘migrated’ people rather than a particular geographical location. By grouping people together based on the twin criteria of ancestry and migration, Pasifika shifts the regional focus to Aotearoa New Zealand while continuing to maintain a distinction between ‘Western’ and indigenous cultures of the region. ‘Pasifika’ also has something of a purist overtone, focusing on indigenous ‘Pacific’ migrants, rather than including East and South Asian, and European migrants from those same ‘Pacific Island’ countries.
A growing dissatisfaction with both the imprecision and the privileging inherent in ‘Pacific’ and ‘Pasifika’ is slowly emerging, and in a satisfying turn of events, it is partly through curatorial practice that alternatives are being proposed. Curator and art administrator Ema Tavola, at the recent Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival in Melbourne, introduced her talk by noting that:
I care about Pacific art, Pacific people and Pacific spaces. I care also that Pacific is not a word that reflects the mana, potential and prowess of this extraordinary region, but from my monolingual perspective, I use English words and hope to contribute to the expansion of their definitions in describing a people and our creative expression. I use Oceania here, because there’s nothing peaceful, tranquil or passive about my practice.5
Tavola’s words refer to the origin of the word ‘Pacific’ as a name given to the sea by Portuguese navigator Fernáo de Magalháes in 1521 to mark the peaceful nature of his journey into the waters while he was in the employ of the Spanish crown. His calm journey was a distinct change from his prior and treacherous journey through the South American Straits, now eponymously called the Straight of Magellan.6 For a while, the ‘Pacific Ocean’ was used interchangeably with ‘The South Seas’, so named in contrast with the Atlantic (the ‘North Sea’) by Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1512. The names given to the region are here constructed as ‘other’ in relation to the Northern Hemisphere, inserting into language a colonial view of the ‘Pacific’ as a place on the periphery.
The phrase ‘Oceania’ is becoming a popular alternative for ‘Pacific’ in exhibition and publication contexts to combat the colonial baggage implicit in naming in the region. Though Oceania is also a foreign term,7 the name has grown in popularity in large part through Epeli Hau’ofa’s influential text Our Sea of Islands. In his essay, Hau’ofa advocates using Oceania, which conveys ‘a sea of islands’ as a way of expanding the dominion of indigenous peoples, in direct opposition to the idea of ‘smallness’ imbedded in the colonial view of the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’. His writing is worth quoting at some length:
The difference between the two perspectives is reflected in the two terms used for our region: Pacific Islands and Oceania. The first term, ‘Pacific Islands’, is the prevailing one used everywhere; it connotes small areas of land surfaces sitting atop submerged reefs or seamounts…. ‘Oceania’ connotes a sea of islands with their inhabitants. The world of ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves … Theirs was a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.8
Hau’ofa’s advocacy of ‘Oceania’ is credited in the 536-page volume Art in Oceania: A New History, which offers an overview of art forms practiced primarily by indigenous people of the region. Hau’ofa’s essay is also referenced extensively in the publication that accompanied Oceania: Imagining the Pacific at City Gallery Wellington (2011). The exhibition’s stated aims were to “[explore] the richness of Māori, Pacific and Pākehā cultures—and points of connection and influence between them—and [offer] an unprecedented glimpse into the soul of the region”, though the admission charge placed on the exhibition made seeing this insight prohibitive. Notably, the ‘Oceanic scope’ still embodies a tripartite division between Māori, Pacific and Pākehā. It’s worth noting that in Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a common distinction made between Māori and Pacific, in recognition of Māori as the indigenous people of these lands. The distinction though further betrays the lack of clarity and contemporary use value that the term ‘Pacific’ offers, a reality further revealed by the few nationalities that are represented in the exhibition as ‘Pacific’. Artist, curator and writer Jim Vivieaere has previously noted that in Aotearoa New Zealand, those ‘Pacific’ nations with visible migrant communities — namely Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and Fiji — have come to stand for the greater regional area9. In Oceania: Imagining the Pacific, this privileging resulted in art works from just a few of these ‘Pacific’ nations acting as metonyms for what is in reality a greater and much more diverse geographical area.
On the whole, Oceania: Imagining the Pacific suffered from both too broad an overview and an essentialising agenda. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the REAL New Zealand Festival, a festival run alongside the Rugby World Cup Tournament, which had clear nationalistic aims in promoting New Zealand as a culturally-rich country. Likewise, Oceania: Imagining the Pacific betrays a clear interest in co-opting the ‘Pacific’ into an understanding of contemporary New Zealand art, drawing upon the wider geographic boundaries that the term Oceania carried while reinforcing a New Zealand-centric perspective.
The resulting groupings in Oceania: Imagining the Pacific consequently feel shallow and tokenistic. One group of works came under the broad heading ‘Land, sea, sky and the human element’ while another cluster, according to the wall label, focused on human experience, identity, dreams, imaginings, ancestral and mythical figures, the everyday life of people in New Zealand and the Pacific, and self-presentation. Jim Vivieaere once noted that ‘Pacific Island Art is a convenient label for a diverse range of forms by culturally diverse peoples’.^10 His statement could perhaps be applied to the label ‘Oceania’ as used in this exhibition too.
Despite the clumsy way that it has been used as an exhibition premise, the growing popularity of ‘Oceania’ as a phrase suggests that there is a thirst for descriptive terms that move away from the Western perspective imbedded in current regional naming. Most recently, ‘Moananui’ has been used as a more ingeniously oriented alternative. The phrase continues to use the ocean as a defining geographical parameter, but notably pulls together similar descriptors used for the sea from a number of indigenous cultures: in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, the ocean is Ka Moananuiākea; in Aotearoa Māori the phrase is Te Moananui a Kiwa, and in Rarotonga Māori the sea is referred to as Moananuiakiva.11 Unlike the phrases that have come before it, Moananui offers a balance between the regional whole and the culturally specific.
Curator and writer Léuli Eshraghi has been instrumental in using ‘Moananui’ within a contemporary art context. In both his recently published articles and his curatorial exhibition project, Vai Niu Wai Niu Coconut Water (2015–2016), Caboolture Regional Art Gallery, Gubbi Gubbi Country, Eshraghi often uses the phrase instead of the term ‘Pacific’. The result is an approach that is more grounded in an overtly subjective perspective. His press release for the above-mentioned exhibition, for example, states the show will engage ‘contested sites of movement and memory spanning shifting lands and waters right across the Moananui a Kiwa, Kiwa’s Great Ocean’. Here, the use of ‘Moananui a Kiwa’ identifies a Māori naming of the Ocean, moving away from the homogenous linguistic system. Eshraghi’s interest in using a heterogeneous approach to naming is evident in his exhibition titles. Vai Niu Wai Niu Coconut Water for example brings together three languages — Sāmoan-Māori-English — to suggest a shared interest in water but distinct and specific perspectives.
For me, ‘Moananui’ feels uncomfortable, like a foreign word I’m not quite sure I’m using correctly. It lacks the vagueness that ‘Pacific’ allows. But that, in part, is its appeal. The word feels complex and specific in a way that the catch-all terms such as Pacific, Pasifika and Oceania don’t. I suspect that the term will function as a stopgap until it too becomes a term of convenience and another troubling term is required. In his seminal essay Towards a new Oceania12, writer Albert Wendt suggests that we continue to move towards new conceptions of the region. As we aim for a post-colonial reality, a continued and vigilant use of the names that we use to collectively define the region that we belong to seems vital as a way of more deliberately acknowledging what we are speaking of and where we are speaking from. Rather than convenience, we should aim for the complicated.
Ioana Gordon-Smith is a writer and curator based in Auckland. She currently works as Curator Kaitiaki Wakaaturanga at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.