Artist Greg Semu, born and raised in New Zealand but of Samoan heritage, has been on the island for several weeks leading up to yesterday’s carefully-crafted shoot in Matavera.
The project involved recreating a contentious piece called ‘The arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand’, painted by Louis J. Steele and Charles Goldie in 1898.
That painting portrays Maori as gaunt, lost figures stumbling across New Zealand, rather than the impressive navigators who voyaged the seas with skill, as they are in Maori tradition.
“Some people have adverse reactions to it,” said Glenda Tuaine, whose company Motone Productions has partnered with Semu. “The voyagers look like they’re at death’s door and have no clue where they’re going.”
Semu set out to photograph a scene which replicates the painting but repositions it - using strong Polynesian characters - for a modern conversation.
He chose the Cook Islands because of the country’s impressive navigational history.
The project is funded by Creative New Zealand Arts Board, and Semu and Melbourne-based Alcaston Gallery have partnered with Motone Productions and the Acting Up Creative Collective, owned by Tuaine and Maurice Newport.
Tuaine said one of the key drivers behind Semu’s work is a desire to get people thinking and talking again about an old debate or conversation.
“Greg repositions that conversation in a different context. It brings it back into the eyes of young people.”
A talented team of locals has for the past month been assembling everything needed to bring Semu’s vision to fruition.
Twenty-four people were cast by Henry Taripo to feature in the piece, which was shot inside Kokonati Café in Matavera during an all-day event yesterday.
Local lighting technicians were involved, as were hair and make-up students from the Tertiary Training Institute, under the guidance of Ani O’Neill.
Telecom provided free calling minutes for the team, Island Car and Bike Hire provided a vehicle for Semu, and the Kokonati owner Mona Henderson was hugely supportive.
“It’s a home-grown job. What we’ve all produced out of our skills and resourcefulness is pretty incredible,” Tuaine said. “This proves we have a healthy industry here that knows how to get things done. We have the skills and the ability.”
She said it could take months to see the final product, which will be keenly awaited by an international audience.
Semu, who is self-taught in the art of photography and film, describes himself as “a Nomadic wanderer of the world”.
His photographic works are collected in museums worldwide and he is comfortable in both the commercial and art world.
“Too many people take photographs. They take and they don't give back. I'm just not comfortable with that. For me it is better to give than to receive,” Semu said.
“The theme that runs strongly through my work is cultural displacement, colonial impact on indigenous cultures, particularly Pacific Islands', and religious Christian iconography's mutation of tribal and so-called primitive icons.”
While here, he has been immersing himself in the local community, culture, language and art experiences.
If you want to hear Semu talk about the project and its meaning, head along to Kokonati Café next Tuesday or Wednesday night for a presentation between 6:30pm and 7:30pm.