• International artist, Greg Semu (Reuben Gates)Source: Reuben Gates
New Zealand-born, Samoan artist Greg Semu exhibits new work which transforms images of despairing Māoris into navigational pioneers.
Sophie Verass

13 Jun 2016 - 12:40 PM  UPDATED 13 Jun 2016 - 3:45 PM

International artist of Samoan decent, Greg Semu’s photography work, Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific) is currently on show in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, displaying a reimagined 19th Century painting, The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand by John Steele and Charles F Goldie - which is originally based off the French Romantic, Theodore Géricault's famous Raft of the Medusa.

“Many people in New Zealand think of the original painting as subversive,” Semu told NITV. “It says that Māori people came from somewhere else and weakened their claim to land rights, strengthening the idea that they were immigrants.”

"I just saw the drama of the amazing voyage. To European eyes, it was an accident that they survived, but they sent an armada, sending people to populate the island. They were great navigators and I want to engage with this colonial past.”

Semu is known for depicting the impact of imperial colonialisation on Indigenous cultures, particularly in the Pacific Islands. His reenactment of Steele and Goldie’s work unveils its historic inaccuracies, challenges representations of Maori settlers and discusses the systematic operations of the Pacific Islands.

As he executes large compositions of navigational voyage, Semu’s work draws attention to the colonisation of the Pacific and the ongoing fight of Māori people for recognition of their rights and ownership of their own story and oral histories.

“The [original] painting was propaganda. It was power of suggestion to uneducated audiences and it’s interesting how inaccurate it is, like a piece of fantasy.”

“The subjects are on a twin hullboat, which weren’t designed to hold such weight. They never leave the shoreline and they’re not made for long voyages.”

“I want to shift paradigms to South empowerment through art and photography and highlight the rigorous navigational process of Pacific people. I like to think of the Pacific Islands as a train line, Samoa is central and New Zealand is end of the line. And the way that these explorers travelled through, traded with other Islanders and did it during different seasons, suggests intelligence and articulation.”

The title of his work is also a playful comment on perceptions of the Pacific. Semu sees how a collective title is supposed to represent various regions, consisting of nations as diverse as Bougainville to Palau to Hawaii.

“Even though we have distinct identities and icons – we do share a lot of similarities,” he says. “We share the same Gods and respect the sea, sky, forest and also cross over in story telling."

"By being grouped under one title, although we are multiple demographics, it joins us, rather than divides us.”

His restaging worked with a cast of twenty-two Indigenous actors from the Cook Islands was not only a logical choice given that Pacific settlement occurred there, but the location also became a rewarding economical decision.

“Māori settlers would have come through the Cook Islands so it made sense to work there,” he says “I worked with about 40 to 50 people from the community and it really demonstrates how the arts is a truly viable stimulus package. All of the revenue from arts grants, which is made up of tax payer money, gets reinvested in to community. It stimulates the economy in a way that’s not recognised enough.” 

Semu’s interest in themes around land rights, ownership and colonisation steam from his own personal experience, feeling displaced as a Samoan, and New Zealander who has also called Germany and Australia ‘home’.

“To me, home is a spiritual concept. Born in New Zealand, I’m 100 per cent Samoan, and it wasn’t until I went to school I started feeling or realising that I was different because of that. Teachers would talk to me differently, for example.

The cultural displacements that I’ve experienced are not through aggression, but are undertoned and undercurrent and this process alienates people from the community. I want to evolve the conversation on things like this. Have it openly and in a contemporary context.”

Semu hopes to open the conversation at the National Gallery of Victoria at his exhibition, The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific) 10 June – 11 September 2016.