After a long illness, New Zealand-based artist and independent curator James Earnest (Jim) Vivieaere passed away peacefully on June 3 in Auckland surrounded by family and friends. He died at the age of 63. Vivieaere had been a pivotal figure in the New Zealand and Pacific Islands arts community, and was instrumental in raising recognition of Pacific Island artists in New Zealand and abroad. Over the past three decades, he curated major exhibitions and fostered now iconic Pacific artists including Michel Tuffery and Shigeyuki Kihara.
Vivieaere’s curatorial work in the groundbreaking “Bottled Ocean (1994),” the first survey exhibition of Pacific Island contemporary art that first opened at the City Gallery Wellington, and then traveled around New Zealand, subverted institutional conventions that categorized Pacific artists as merely exotic indigenes. “Pacific cultural origins and traditions can be made a source of creative possibilities rather than constraints,” he wrote in the exhibition catalog.
Of Rarotongan origin, Vivieaere was born on September 12, 1947 in the small town of Waipawa, New Zealand. In the late 1960s he attended the Dunedin School of Medicine to begin medical training. Yet as a Polynesian minority faced with everyday racism, he found himself estranged from the predominantly white upper-middle class academia. Vivieaere dropped out, and in 1972 he entered the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University.
As a Cook Islander brought up away from his heritage—living the early part of his life in places such as Hawke’s Bay, Dunedin, and Coromandel—Vivieaere first encountered Polynesian culture in 1981, when a sojourn in Australia brought him in contact with a Tahitian family in Noosa Heads. It was then his interest in “Pacific Islandness” piqued, and would come to define his work as a curator, artist and mentor.
As an artist, Vivieaere participated in the fourth Noumea Biennial of Contemporary Arts (2000), and in 2007, exhibited in the major exhibition “Le Folauga” at the Auckland Museum, which subsequently traveled to the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan in 2008. Much of his work consists of multimedia and video collages that explore the hybrid identities of contemporary Polynesians. His video installation, This is not an ocean, this is a rented house / this is not a hand, this is a library / this is not the sky, this is a grandfather clock / this is not a child, this is a mirror (2007), displayed at “Le Folauga,” shows a child diving into calm water and swimming away with awkward motions against a threatening soundtrack of surging ocean waves.
Vivieaere’s most significant contribution to New Zealand art, however, remains his curatorial work. In addition to his breakout “Bottled Ocean,” he recently co-curated the exhibition “The Great Journey: In Pursuit of the Ancestral Realm” at the Kaohsiung Museum in 2009, which explored the cross-cultural connections between Taiwan’s indigenous and Pacific Islanders, and featured New Zealand artists Lisa Reihana, Shane Cotton, Virginia King, Greg Semu and Michel Tuffery.
Hundreds gathered at the Fale Pasifika, at the University of Auckland, where funeral services were held on June 12. Before his death, Vivieaere had been planning an autobiographical installation Oceans In Us that would represent a personal voyage over water, bringing together all the cities he had visited and the people he had met over the years—sadly, an unrealized project. Yet, as friends and loved ones spoke about him, and Pasifika artists danced in commemoration of a leader in the Aotearoa and international art community, the funeral memorialized the artist-curator’s lifetime achievements, while bringing together people who had shared his life’s journey—much in the way he wished Oceans In Us would.