Sunday, June 21, 2009

Talk on Pacific Storms Art Exhibition in Bundaberg, Australia 18/06/09

My name is Prisca Chant (pictured above, centre, with Mekeo dancers from Papua New Guinea in Cairns) and I’m from Tahiti which is the main Island of French Polynesia. After I completed my Master in Visual Arts in Aix en Provence in France I came here in Australia to continue my studies in Museum Studies at the University of Queensland.

Today, my talk will be based on my Master’s dissertation entitled ‘Pacific Diaspora and Contemporary Pacific Art in Cairns’. This talk focuses on the Pacific diaspora in Cairns and the representation of Pacific identity through visual and performing arts. It addresses the population of Pacific migrants, their experience of displacement, re-location, sense of identity and belonging to a new country. This talk will give an insight on the shifting cultural, social and environmental contexts that surround the production of Pacific art as Pacific Islanders face new values and ideas in Cairns. I will also raise some of the issues surrounding the notion of ‘Pacific art’ and provide a brief insight of the contemporary art practices in Cairns. The art of the Pacific is often stereotyped by the Western world and is often categorised as ‘exotic’, ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’. I think it is important to redress this inaccurate perception.

I spent one month in Cairns interviewing Pacific community representatives, artists and professionals working in art institutions. Much of the information was provided by the Pacific communities and artists and this has been invaluable for my study. For this research, I could only focus on the three major Pacific Island groups resident in Cairns due to the short timeframe I had. These are the Papua New Guineans, Cook Islanders and Samoans.

It was important in my study to take into account the Pacific Islanders’ ‘First Voice’. As a matter of fact, Pacific communities and artists are well-placed to understand their own needs as they are the holders and keepers of their cultural heritage. Giving a voice to the Pacific Islanders has therefore been crucial in my project as it is only through the Pacific Islanders’ self-empowerment that sustainability of their arts and cultural heritage can be achieved.

I believe this topic is timely and relevant today because Australia is located in the Asia-Pacific region and has a responsibility towards this geo-political region. Many Pacific Islanders have migrated to Australia and many of them are now living in Cairns and this why I focused my research in Cairns. I wrote my dissertation with the aim to advocate for greater understanding and promotion of contemporary Pacific art and cultures and the diversification of the mainstream Australian art world.

I hope that at the end of this talk you will have a better understanding of the importance of arts in the context of sustainable heritage preservation and development for the Pacific cultures here in Australia. I believe that contemporary Pacific art will expand greatly in Australia in the near future and this will require Australian art institutions to be accountable by diversifying the mainstream art.

Cairns Early Migration History

Cairns was officially founded in 1876 and since then, it has been the home of many cultures. As you may already know, among the many migrants who came to settle in Queensland, Pacific Islanders are considered to be some of the pioneers who contributed to build this region. An estimated 62,000 Islanders were brought to Queensland between 1863 and 1904 to work on the sugar cane plantations (Saunders 610). Some were kidnapped or ‘blackbirded’ into long-term indentured service. The Pacific Islanders were referred to as ‘kanakas’, a pejorative term which connoted ignorant or enslaved people (Mercer 28). Treatment of Pacific Islanders was in fact segregationist as they were ‘excluded by an unwritten social code from European community life’ (Mercer 16). Despite the hardships they had endured, they adapted and adjusted to their new life in Queensland and subsequently regarded Australia as their permanent home. Between 1901 and 1908, under the White Australia Policy, many Islanders were forcibly deported from Australia and it is difficult to know how many remained in Australia after the deportation period. But one thing to remember is that they were the staple labour force in Queensland’s sugar industry.

Current Pacific Island Population in Cairns

A large population of Pacific Islanders currently live in Cairns and they participate in the enrichment of Cairns’ multicultural society. According to the data provided by the Pacific communities and the Cairns City Council, Pacific Islanders actually represent one of the largest migrant populations in Cairns. Their number is predicted to increase exponentially over the next few years.

The Papua New Guineans represent the largest Pacific migrant population in Cairns. And according to the PNG community representative, there are approximately 4500 PNG peoples living in Cairns. The Cook Islanders is the second largest Pacific community living in Cairns after the Papua New Guineans and the community stated that there are approximately 2000 Cook Islanders in Cairns, many of them came from New Zealand. A similar situation can be observed in the Samoan community as many of them were born in New Zealand and have also migrated from there to Australia. The Samoans are the third largest Pacific community living in Cairns, the community representative, indicated that there are approximately 800 Samoans in Cairns. I only focused on these 3 major Islander groups in my research but of course there are many other Pacific Islanders living there.

Overview of 3 Pacific associations in Cairns/community profile

While I was in Cairns, I interviewed 3 community representatives and they were, the president of the PNG Wantoks Association Cairns, the former president of Kia Orana Cairns Cook Islands Community Association and the president of Voice of Samoa. Their roles as presidents or leaders of their community organisations impart them with significant knowledge of their respective communities. These 3 associations which run on a volunteer basis, share the same concerns and face similar issues regarding their communities. Their main concerns were; the need for a place or community centre, and the lack of funding to sustain their community activities. Maintaining their art practices was also one of their major concerns. The art practices in their communities have been restrained due to the new socio-cultural environment, which is different to the life in the islands. For some people, weaving baskets, mats and hats was intrinsically part of their lives back in the islands. The Islanders have found themselves in a challenging territory in Cairns where there is no specific market or promotion for their arts. They are also facing the time and financial pressures of the Western world, as well as difficulties in finding the necessary materials. Although, these 3 associations are struggling to maintain their cultural activities they’ve shown remarkable willingness and motivation to keep their communities’ cultural heritage and traditions alive, especially for the younger generations. They also wish that the art of their communities would gain more recognition in Cairns in the future.

Pacific Diaspora Experience

The majority of Pacific Islanders interviewed stated they were attracted to Cairns because of the tropical weather, the island food, the coconut trees, the friendliness of people, the peacefulness and reasonable size of the city and, for some of them, because they already had family living there. All in all, they feel a sense of place and belonging in Cairns. They also concur that their lives have changed a lot socially since they moved to Cairns, mainly because they are exposed to a diverse multicultural society. They still have a strong connection with their cultural heritage either through their arts, languages or food. And although they assert that there have not been any major cultural changes so far, it doesn’t mean that this trend will continue.

In fact, all cultures are ‘constantly in flux, both shaping and being shaped by social and economic aspects of human interaction’ (Rao and Walton 4). Now that Pacific Islanders are living in Cairns, they are exposed to a new social, cultural and economic environment, as well as new values and ideas that will eventually shape the way they see themselves. They are in the process of créolisation, living and experiencing it in Cairns. The concept of creolisation takes its roots in the Caribbean Islands where heterogeneous cultural elements overlapping and interfering produce the novelty of a créole reality. This visionary theory of creolisation was initiated by Edouard Glissant, a Caribbean philosopher, who defines it as such: ‘Créolisation is the meeting of several cultures or at least of several distinct elements...resulting in a totally unpredictable new element’[1]. The créolisation is an opening to the unpredictable, the unexpected; inventiveness and creativity are the hallmark of the créolisation and this will be examined further in relation to the art of the Pacific.

In fact, culture and sense of identity are not fixed entities anchored in time. Rather, they evolve with time and according to the environment and place in which people live and the various encounters in their lives. As Ang says about the experience of migration:

There is ideal-typical migrant, and it would therefore be unwarranted to collapse this diversity of experiences into a master-narrative of the migrant experience when the question of ‘where you’re from’ threatens to overwhelm the reality of ‘where you’re at’, the idea of diaspora becomes a disempowering one, a hindrance to ‘identity rather than an enabling principle’ (Ang, qtd. in Gunew 9)

I think that this principle of ‘where you’re at?’ should also be considered in relation to Pacific art practices. The stereotypical views, instilled by the West, of the Pacific region and its arts is still pervasive today. This must be demystified as Pacific Islands’ cultures are alive, contemporary and evolving according to their time and place and so will be their arts.

The main Stereotypical views on Pacific Art


The depictions of the Pacific Islands in popular culture perpetuate the ideas of a tropical paradise and exoticism. This cliché has been inscribed upon the Western imagination since the discovery of the Pacific Islands in the late 18th century. Early European accounts have shaped the mythology of this region as a paradise. This image created by the first explorers such as Louis Antoine de Bougainville still remains indelibly imprinted on the Western popular imagination. And in addition to this, this perception has been refined and manufactured by the tourism industry, literature and the media, becoming today a legacy engraved on the collective imagination (Vercoe, Paradise Now 35).


Along side with the pervasive exoticisation of the Pacific, ‘primitivism’ is another term used to describe the art of Oceania as well as of Africa. Attached to the word ‘primitive’ is a pejorative connotation. The term was used by anthropologists to depict so called ‘primitive societies’, suggesting that they are underdeveloped or uncivilised from a Western viewpoint (Anderson 5). In reference to art, ‘the concept of ‘primitive art’ is a Western one, referring to creations that we wish to call “art” made by people who in the 19th century were called “primitive” but in fact, were simply autonomous peoples who were overrun by the Colonial powers’ (Graburn qtd. in Hiller 12). This terminology is an erroneous one as there had never been any ‘primitive societies’, even in pre-colonial times. This is a term invented by anthropologists to describe what they thought to be non-evolved societies, without considering that they were simply different.

Traditional /Contemporary

When talking about Pacific art, the binary opposition between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is a recurrent issue. In the eyes of outsiders, ‘the art of the Pacific has always been traditional rather than contemporary’ (Thomas APT 2 17). Even the literature on Pacific art gives the false impression that the art of the Pacific has been frozen in time and stopped developing in the late 19th or early 20th century. ‘This word ‘traditional’ has often been misleading and confusing as it connotes a static and fossilized art form, unchanged and unaffected’ (Tausie viii). It implies that the art of the Pacific is dominated by the reproduction and perpetuation of tradition alone. This unfortunate reading can in fact contribute to creating boundaries and restrictive stereotypes of Pacific arts. And maintaining such perception would deny the interpretation and innovation always present in Pacific cultures.

Art mirrors the changes in society and as ‘societies change, and so must their arts, if they are to be meaningful, functional and express the sentiment inherent in that society’ (Tausie viii). Pacific Islanders must look forward to forge their identity and arts as part of the contemporary world and this does not mean denying heritage and history but, rather, embracing the opportunities that the present offers.

In addition to this, the contemporary Westernization of Pacific art has been often deplored and accused of lacking of authenticity. Pacific artists face a dilemma here - ‘if they produce traditional art, then, it may be out of place in modern society, but if they produce arts which have Western influences, then they may be accused of producing something non-indigenous or non-traditional’ (Tausie 58). But the reality is that, the art of the Pacific region encompasses both customary genres, such as woven fabrics which are still categorised as works of craft rather than art, and cross-cultural works which can be defined as more ‘modern’ as they incorporates Western influences (Thomas, APT 5 27). Both genres are valid and authentic in their own ways and need recognition in the international art world. The art of the Pacific is not only limited to material and tangible art forms but it encompasses an extensive wealth of intangible art production ranging from dances and songs to story telling and poetry. Those cultural practices are inherent to Pacific Islanders’ lives and culture and all these current art forms in the Pacific possess value and validity. ‘Contemporary Pacific art’ therefore refers to all the creative forms of expression currently practiced in this region.

Contemporary Pacific art is, therefore, neither ‘exotic’ nor ‘traditional’ and under no circumstances ‘primitive’. Such stereotypical views of the Pacific Islands act as an impediment to appreciating the cultural complexities of Pacific art. The challenges facing contemporary Pacific artists are to ‘break out of the stereotypes and clichés that surround Pacific art, and to gain acceptance for the validity of their art forms and practices’ (Cochrane APT 3 88). In a sense, contemporary Pacific art acts as a springboard to demystifying the stereotypical views of the South Seas. Contemporary Pacific artists provide an alternative and more complex vision of the Pacific based on their life experience. They produce artworks in which, content and perspectives remain grounded in their own personal experiences and histories.

Créolisation of Pacific Art

What makes Pacific culture so distinct from other cultures is the dynamic mix of various cultural sources. The history of colonisation, migration and diaspora in the Pacific area brought extensive fluidity among contemporary artists living and working in the region (Chiu 13). Multiple cultural influences have provided a myriad of realities among Pacific artists. It is this vibrant culture that makes possible a dynamic expression in the arts. This process could be defined as the créolisation of Pacific art, which is the encounter of heterogeneous cultural elements creating a new unpredictable and unexpected créole art form.

To give you an example,

Charles Street, a visual artist of both Papua New Guinean and Western descent was one of the artists I interviewed in Cairns. Charles Street represents the generation of Pacific artists born in Australia. Interviewing him was useful in understanding the direction of Pacific art in Australia in the future. Charles Street is at the centre of the créolisation process. He characterises himself as an ‘Urban Pacific Artist’ and describes his work as a ‘fusionist style’ as he tries to bind his dual heritage together. Using the technique of screen-printing, his artworks are fuelled by animation imagery from the 70s and 80s such as ‘Astroboy’ or ‘Rocket Man’, which are then super-imposed on traditional PNG patterns from his mother’s tribe. He also animates his cartoon characters with Pidgin words. His art reflects the way he lives his life within contemporary society, which is influenced by both his PNG and Western heritage. As he mentions, ‘my work is an opportunity to draw attention to my unique cultural heritage, exploring the cultural platform of the Urban Pacific Artist’ (CV np).

The Pacific artists who are now living in Cairns are located in a complex web of new influences, ideas, values, and material, which places them in a situation of confrontations, a cross-cultural zone, which contributes to the production of the unpredictable and unexpected.


For Pacific artistic and cultural heritage to be sustainable in the long-term in Australia, Pacific artists and communities must be pro-active in the management, presentation, preservation and continuation of their arts and cultural life. And on the other side, in order to be more responsive to cultural diversity, art institutions must adapt the principle of cultural democracy. Engaging with culturally diverse communities or artists will contribute to diversifying the monopoly of mainstream art.

[1]‘La créolisation est la mise en contact de plusieurs cultures ou au moins de plusieurs éléments de cultures distinctes… avec pour résultante une donnée nouvelle totalement imprévisible.’

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