“Island Affinities: Contemporary Art of Oceania”

Art Galleries, California State University
USA Tonga Papua New Guinea Samoa

Oceania is a region of both great cultural diversity and similarity, fostered by the forces of migration, colonialism and globalization. Resonating with these tensions, “Island Affinities,” co-curated by Jewel Castro and Peri Klemm, asks what it means to be a Pacific Islander today. The curators present works in diverse media by 13 artists living “on” and “off” islands, aiming to dispel Western stereotypes of the Pacific by addressing artistic concerns for identity, gender and the significance of place, genealogy, memory and loss.

At the gallery entrance, an andesite sculpture by Tongan Filipe Tohi from 2004, and a mixed-media saipo (or tapa, beaten bark cloth) by Samoan Reggie Meredith from 2006 initiate a dialogue of affinities. Resembling a smooth, embossed volcanic rock, Tohi’s piece is inspired by the sacred designs of sennit lashing, whose mathematical principles he honors in new media. Presented as contemporary “fine” art, Meredith’s saipo, decorated with traditional designs and screen-prints of old family photographs, expresses pride in Samoan women’s aesthetic and cultural traditions. These feelings are tempered by loss as her family’s traditions, affected by modernization, are fading—an effect she replicates visually by hanging the work behind glass, smudged with dark patches.

In other media, Papua New Guinea (PNG) painter Jane Wena’s canvas House of a Thousand Tribes (2003) depicts PNG’s new national parliament house surrounded by traditional symbols of wealth and beauty, including the Bird of Paradise, the national symbol. But designed as a traditional “men’s house,” the building indexes patriarchy, stymieing PNG women from becoming parliamentarians.

Shigeyuki Kihara and Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Samoan fa’afafine (men identifying as women), raise contentious issues of Third Gender, traditionally acceptable in Polynesia. Posing as both a village man and woman in her photographic series “Fa’afafine: in the manner of a woman” (2005), Kihara challenges the binary Western model of sexuality. Drawing on Samoan traditions of comedic theater to convey social criticism, McMullin’s short film Sinalela (2002) is a contemporary re-telling of Cinderella, casting fa’afafine in female roles.

Jewel Castro’s installation Red Room: Daughters of Salamasina (1998–2001) is a multimedia portrait dedicated to Queen Salamasina, who unified the Samoan Islands, and the three generations of Samoan women who have followed her. Inspired by the open-walled, ceremonial Samoan fale (house) that invites ancestral spirits to rejoin their descendants, Red Room materializes these specters as shrouded, seated forms. The generations of women are ten painted in bold black on adjacent red walls, creating an environment of storytelling.

Amidst cultural diversity, the exhibition highlights two core Pacific values: ancestral traditions are spiritual forces guiding the present and the future; and Pacific Islanders conceptualized their identities in powerful genealogical connections to others.