Matisse’s Tahiti Trip Inspired Angela Tiatia’s Feminist Reinterpretation of His Venus Bronze Sculpture

Still of Angela Tiatia's Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, 2010, single-channel digital video. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Still of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl, 2021, moving image. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Still of Angela Tiatia’s Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, 2010, single-channel digital video. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Still of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl, 2021, moving image. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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An exhibition that runs parallel to the upcoming Henri Matisse retrospective at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales invites four female artist to create works inspired by the artist’s French Polynesian voyage. We spoke to Angela Tiatia, who turned her defiant “feminist gaze” on Matisse with an AR and CGI-powered installation.

 

TEXT: Michael Young
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

In 2019, Sydneys Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) commissioned Sāmoan-Australian multimedia artist Angela Tiatia, to create a video artwork to complement the museum’s summer blockbuster exhibition Matisse: Life and Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris, slated to open in November 2021. She is one of four female artists who will participate in Matisse Alive, an immersive exhibition that runs parallel to Matisse: Life and Spirit. The other three contemporary artists are: New York-based Nina Chanel Abney, Australian artist Sally Smart, and Robin White from New Zealand.

The gallery suggested that Tiatias focus should be on Matisses imagining of the Pacific and his representation of the female figure; the latter having been a popular trope in his practice—think odalisques and beautiful models. Matisse had visited Tahiti in 1930 and absorbed many visual influences, such as the symmetrical organic shapes and flat colouration that Polynesians used in their handmade quilts—elements that would manifest in his own art over the ensuing decades.

Even before the ink was dry on her contract, Tiatia leapt on a plane and flew to Tahiti (lest we remember travelling was very simple pre-COVID-19). When I was first approached to do the commission, I thought what a pity it isnt Gauguin. He would have been such an easy target,” said Tiatia recently when we spoke. Even though she was born in New Zealand and grew up in Sāmoa, she wanted to explore French Polynesia for herself and experience the quality of the Tahitian light that Matisse described as ferociously beautiful”.

The commissioned work—a collage of film, video and Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)—became The Pearl; projected onto an 18metre long screen, the largest screen that the museum has ever installed.

 

Still of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl, 2021, moving image. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

Tiatia comes across as a proud Polynesian woman. She is tall and statuesque, with a striking coiffure and a traditional Sāmoan malu tattoo that reaches from her knees to her upper thighs. Prior to colonisation of the Pacific Islands by France in 1880, the malu was considered sacred and kept covered. With the global proliferation of tattooing and the concomitant intrusion of Western mores into the region, things have changed and the malu is no longer quite so sacred.

Tiatia is often the subject in her videos; other times she is behind the camera, producing tightly conceived work with the panache of an experienced director. As a result, her malu is often on display as a potent symbol of Samoan cultural significance. It has become a useful tool in her feminist armoury that she wields to great effect.  For example, in her video Walking the Wall (2014), she wears a legless body suit and high heels and—lying on her back with feet firmly pressed against the wall and stilettos firmly in place—unashamedly displays her malu as she mimics the act of walking, this time up the wall. The video caused controversy at the time and Tiatia was subsequently trolled on social media by Polynesians who took offence that her malu was so obviously on show.  It was also prominently displayed in the tableau vivant Dark Light (2017), a reimagining of Australian photographer Max Dupains iconic photograph Sunbaker (1939) where a white man sunbakes on an Australian beach. In Dark Light, Tiatia lays naked, back to the camera with the malu in full view against a verdant theatrical setting. Everything in the original is inverted: white has become brown; man has become female; the sterile beach has been replaced by an exotic Polynesian forest. The unspoken subtext being that this idealised version of French Polynesian promiscuity is nothing more than a formulaic deception.

Tiatias political and social concerns are sharp and on the money: climate change, rising sea levels,globalisation, the environment, colonisation, and the way tourism—notably in the homogenising influence of global hotel chains throughout the islands—is diluting Pacific identity. But she is also critical of the indigenous Polynesians who slavishly cling to a faith that will ultimately protect them from rising sea levels.

In Holding On (2015), she wore a one-piece bathing suit and laid on a concrete groyne on a Polynesian atoll with arms stretched out in the shape of a cross, challenging the rising sea levels to consume her. Which of course it eventually did.

That Tiatia is a feminist goes almost without saying and, at the core, her practice is the concern of how Polynesian women have been—and still are—objectified and turned into sexual stereotypes. Things that linger in her own past.

Tiatia came to visual art in her early 30s—and before she did, she had lived another life. For 20 years, she was a fashion model and an actor, with bit parts in movies. Her first acting role was as a naked, dusky maiden (her description) in the Kevin Costner-produced movie Rapa-Nui (1994). Rapa Nui was the original name of Easter Island—famed for its 900 monumental stone moai and little else—before its inhabitants deforested the island,making it virtually uninhabitable. In Costners movie, Rapa Nui is described as a paradise; but on the movie set, Tiatia became aware of the racial hierarchy that exists in the world of movies: the white girls get the best roles while the brown girls flash their flesh.

Tiatias artistic career really begun the first year of art school when, suffering from a broken heart—the details of which she keeps secret—she made a short cathartic video, submitted it to a gallery and found it used in an exhibition. The influences on her video work are the obvious ones: Bill Viola, Marina Abramović, Steve McQueen, Isaac Julian and, to a lesser extent, Anna Mendieta. Tiatia pursues her artistic vision in a field peopled by giants of the genre and her work sometimes suffers as a result. But what makes Tiatia stand out is her ability to tell stories through linear time with a fearsome, pareddown objectivity.

 

Still of Angela Tiatia’s Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, 2010, single-channel digital video. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

One of her early videos is Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis (2010), a one-minute, single-channel video that was snapped up by the AGNSW and will be shown alongside The Pearl in Matisse Alive. Its premise is astonishingly simple: the hibiscus flower is a potent symbol of French Polynesias exoticism and Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis riffs off the myth promulgated by soldiers during World War II that Polynesian women were sexually promiscuous. The womens availability was advertised by how they wore the flower: tucking it behind the left ear indicated they were spoken for; tucking it behind the right ear meant they were not. Tiatia takes the flower in her mouth—a vivid red bloom obscuring most of her face—which she then slowly consumes until her face is fully revealed and we see not a compliant Polynesian woman but a challenging Sāmoan who, having destroyed the myth, now owns it. One wonders what Matisse might have made of it all?

In 2017, Tiatia made a seminal five-minute video. The Fall, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial, tracing the day in February 1942 when Japanese forces took control of Singapore. Using contemporary written and oral accounts that she researched in the National Archives of Singapore, Tiatia constructs an elegiac work that is presented in slow motion and that features a succession of interlaced vignettes to tell a chilling story of the panic that ensued as the Japanese forces marched through the city-state. Filmed as one panned, tracking shot with a cast of 30 friends and actors—each of whom play two characters—the film articulates the overriding sense of despair and futility while keeping its head well above any maudlin sentimentality. The Fallwent on to win the Ravenswood Australian Womens Art Prize of AU$35,000 in 2018.

It is in this context that Tiatia has turned her defiant feminist gaze on Matisse. In 1930, Matisse spent three months in Tahiti staying in a luxury hotel in Papeete, as opposed to experiencing first-hand the rural squalor inhabited by Gauguin, who had visited the island 50 years earlier and whose trip inspired Matisses visit. Both artists had been seduced by the idea of Polynesia as a terrestrial paradise—a view promulgated by the French government who saw tourism as a way of making money from the colony. It was not a painting trip per se—Matisse took few materials with him. He carried a sketch book and took aide-memoire photos, and little else—preferring to concentrate on sight-seeing and sketching from the balcony of his luxury hotel. Matisse was on holiday; how he reacted to Polynesian women is not recorded.

 

Still of Angela Tiatia’s The Pearl, 2021, moving image. © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

In The Pearl, Tiatia has attempted to side-step any overtly feminist issues that she may have over Matisses work. I have approached Matisse on a much more environmental and visual level. The introduction of my feminist perspective is more a celebration of the female form inspired by Matisses tiny 1930 bronze sculptures Venus in a Shell,” she said. Matisses Venus is crouching, with her legs curved and her louche arms raised above her head. She is everything that Sandro Botticellis Birth of Venus (c. 1480s) is not: accessible, voluptuous, and human. I was really drawn to Matisses Venus. She is a woman. Her arms and armpits exposed. I found that quite sexy when compared to how other artists have portrayed Venus,Tiatia said.

The Pearl is constructed from Augmented Reality (AR) and CGI, and flirts with the Greco-Roman myth of Venus having been born from the ocean. But Tiatia supplants Venus with the Polynesian god Taaroa who was also born in a shell, subtly challenging Matisses Pacific Island view. COVID19 restrictions have prevented Tiatia from getting her actors into the studio for filming; but when that is done, they will be inserted into the current iteration where they will do their own thingwithin multiple pink plastic clam shells that are arranged as a champagne tower enveloped by gushing water.

As gentle as Tiatia confesses to having been on Matisse, it would have been impossible for her not to subject him to her 21st century feminist gaze. Which ultimately begs the question: Is The Pearl unfair to Matisse? Jackie Dunn, special exhibitions curator at the AGNSW and co-curator of Matisse Alive and Matisse: Life and Spirit”, is best positioned to answer this thorny question. We are asking how is it that Matisse can still focus attention on issues like Tiatias. It is more about trying to maintain a dialogue even though he died almost 70 years ago. We are not suggesting for example, that Matisse simply ripped off the Polynesian quilts and took them into his studio. It is more trying to suggest what a wonderful sense of exchange and dialogue Matisses art has been for so many artists, Angela included,Dunn said.

From todays egalitarian perspective, one cant but help imagine Matisse, the uber successful European artist,discreetly navigating Tahitis markets with his camera in pursuit of visual imagery that he could appropriate and use in later years to enliven his own highly decorative, hedonistic art.

Which gives rise to a further question. Was Matisse simply a cultural plunderer when he visited Tahiti? All his life he collected carpets and textile wall hangings that would drape his studio and serve as backdrops for many of his odalisque paintings. In Tahiti he encountered the symmetrical, organic folk-art patterns favoured by Polynesian women in their tivaevaetraditional quilts. Throughout his life, a Tahitian woman friend would send him more quilts. That they directly influenced Matisses late art and cut-outs is obvious. But whether Matisse should be seen as a cultural plunderer or simply an artist seeking inspiration is a question that will occupy visitors to the AGNSW over the coming weeks—and certainly one that I suspect Tiatia has asked herself.

 

Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
20 November 2021 – 13 March 2022
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

Matisse Alive
23 October 2021 – 3 April 2022
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney

 

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