Greg Semu, 
Earning My Stripes #2, 2015
, pigment print on Hahnemühle photo baryta, 100 × 133.4 cm
. Copyright and courtesy the artist and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne. 

Collection +

Greg Semu

Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
New Zealand Australia

To apply a traditional Samoan tattoo (pe’a) to the body takes three hours daily for ten days and, while the pain of application is acute, the healing process is far worse. I know these facts, because at the opening of Samoan-New Zealand artist Greg Semu’s boutique “Collection +” exhibition at Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), I talked to Etuale Ioane, Australian Consul-General of the Independent State of Samoa, who hiked up his ie faitaga (male sarong) to show me his pe’a. It was a heart-stopping moment for those of us sipping our wine and chatting with each other. I thought for a second he was going to expose the complete tattoo (or tatau in Samoan), the intricate patterns of which started above his knees, swirled around his thigh and then—I assume—traced over his buttocks before heading north across his lower back. “But this is nothing [compared] to the pain upon completion, where the tatau must be regularly bathed to prevent infection,” he explained. The tataus are charcoal-black in hue, where solid dye in the shape of blocks are mixed with that of symmetrical, linear patterns.

GREG SEMU, “Self-Portrait, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay” series, 2012
, digital C-prints
, 100 × 72 cm each. Installation view of “Collection+: Greg Semu” at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney, 2016. Courtesy SCAF.
GREG SEMU, “Self-Portrait, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay” series, 2012
, digital C-prints
, 100 × 72 cm each. Installation view of “Collection+: Greg Semu” at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney, 2016. Courtesy SCAF.

I almost felt like a seasoned observer of the Samoan tatau after having seen Semu’s show of photographs, where there are plenty on display, and the naked Samoan bodies that carry them—mainly Semu’s—are like inscribed, megalithic ciphers possessed of a sculptural splendor. One triptych, Earning My Stripes (2015), charts three stages of the intricate application process of tatau, as it spreads across Semu’s back and shoulders, and subsequently completes a process of accretion that begun, so the catalogue states, 20 years earlier. Acquiring a pe’a is a rite of passage, and the suffering of doing so is all part of the process, as the skin is pierced by medieval-like tools of sharpened wood, bone and turtle shell.

A large percentage of the works in Semu’s show are self-portraits; although they mainly feature his body rather than his face, and his tataus wrap his body like sheets of dark silk. Semu’s tatau is the subject of two self-portrait triptychs, each separated by 20 years—one in color (2012) and the other in black and white (1995).

GREG SEMUAuto Portrait with 12 Disciples (from the series The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians), 2010
, digital C-print, 
100 x 286 cm. Copyright and courtesy the artist and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.

While these portraits are visually stunning, Semu, at heart, is a storyteller in the tradition of Jeff Wall and Wang Qingsong, whose best work creates a complex photographic series of tableau vivants that explore effects of colonization, social and cultural dislocation, and what it is to be the victim of religious hegemony—all of which took place throughout the Pacific during the 18th and 19th century, driven by the white man’s thirst for territorial and commercial gain. Through his practice, Semu attempts to elucidate and understand this clash of civilizations. 

In works such as The Last Cannibal Supper . . . Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians (2010), Semu sheds his narcissistic gaze and locates himself center stage in a re-enactment of the Last Supper that is bathed in a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro. It comes as no surprise that, here, Semu takes the part of Christ—a role that he enthusiastically pursued as well in his latest work, After Hans Holbein the Younger – the Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (2016). In the latter he is depicted as being emaciated and marked with stigmata, but the sense of suffering is somehow lost beneath what would have been an hours-long application of stage makeup.

Though Semu embraces Samoa as his ancestral and spiritual home, the artist was actually born in New Zealand; yet he could certainly be considered a citizen of the world. His travels since the age of 20 have taken him to New York, London, Paris and Samoa. From 2014 to 2015, he lived in Berlin on a 12-month-long residency where, among many other works, he made Two Bodies, Two Landscapes – Zwei Körper, Zwei Landschaften #1 and Two Bodies, Two Landscapes – Zwei Körper, Zwei Landschaften #2 (both 2015). The two photographs are erotically charged works featuring a male and female model who appear to be engaged in coitus, but whether or not the act was done in reality remains peripheral to the sculptural intensity of the works’ intimate framing.

Semu is a sophisticated and cultural world denizen and, I suspect, a bit of a larrikin at heart. He will often subversively refer to himself as the “noble savage,” a controversial term that gained historical currency among Western literary circles during the 19th century, which idealized “primitive” peoples as being free from the corruption of civilization, and therefore symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity. Semu riffs off this characterization when he hosts his weekly radio program of experimental music.

Ultimately, he is an outstanding photographic artist, and what makes him stand out in the crowded space of this particular field is the quiet and non-aggressive way he goes about his practice. His many self-portraits may cause him to be perceived as a self-obsessed showman, and, ironically, a postmodern “noble savage” at large in Australia, but he is nonetheless a remarkable artist.

Installation view of “Collection+: Greg Semu” at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney, 2016, with Two Bodies, Two Landscapes – Zwei Körper, Zwei Landschaften #1 and #2 (both 2015
). Courtesy SCAF

Collection +: Greg Semu” is on view at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, until December 10, 2016.

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