A fantasy of Paradise

Lily Hacking
Featured in issue No. 42 2011
Artist Greg Semu, leads a global life. He is an itinerant, still searching for a place where he feels at home. Lily Hacking asks him about his view of paradise.

ALTHOUGH he was born (1971) and raised in Auckland Greg Semu considers Samoa his spiritual home. However, he finds it difficult when he visits the islands.
 ‘Samoa is not my home, I never grew up there,’ he says.  ‘We have this distorted fantasy of the Pacific as paradise... I myself suffer from this delusion. But if you go to Samoa you have to follow the rules and regulations of the village, and you’re not allowed to be autonomous.’
Semu began travelling when he was 25. ‘It started off as a year-on year-off kind of thing. You go away and then get homesick or get scared, and you come home, but it’s worse so you go again.’
He spent several years living in New York, and ten based in Paris, before moving to Sydney nearly two years ago. “What I love about Sydney is that I’m not from here.”, he says. Semu feels comfortable in places where he is to some extent an outsider. “It’s just that whole sort of displacement thing – trying to find a place called home you know? And I’m still looking.”
Several years ago Semu underwent the ceremonial rite of pe’a – traditional Samoan tatau or tattoo, reserved for Samoan men, that covers the body from waist to knees. It is done using handmade tools as opposed to western equipment. Semu had met New Zealand photographer Mark Adams who has been instrumental in the documentation of Samoan tatau. Adams had photographed Paulo Suluape, an internationally renowned master of the traditional art of Samoan tattooing.(i) Adams introduced Semu to Paulo, and three months later Semu’s tatau was complete.

Last Cannibal Supper.jpg
The Last Cannibal Supper… cause tomorrow we become Christians, 2010.

“I’m still waiting for what it is supposed to mean,”  he laughs.
 In 1995 Semu completed a photographic series that included self-portraits featuring his pe’a. This series saw his first solo show and the acquisition of his work into the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.
Semu is a self-taught photographer. While working as a model he met New Zealand cinematographer, photographer, and director Kerry Brown, who became a mentor when Semu abandoned modelling and “switched to the other side.”(ii)  
Semu is predominantly an art photographer but also works as a commercial fashion photographer, and evidence of the amalgamation of the two is in his glossy large-format photographic works.
“My approach to art photography is on a commercial level – as in it’s a big production. I have lots of actors, art department, wardrobe, hair and makeup. So I kind of call myself a commercial art photographer.’
The Battle of the Noble Savage series (2007), commissioned by musée du Quai Branly in Paris, was recently exhibited at City Gallery Wellington. Individual photographs were mounted on large light-boxes installed in an unlit space, so that the only light came from the illuminated images. “As an artist, when people walk up to your space you want them to feel it straight away. And it’s a simple trick, it’s kind of gimmicky, but it’s effective. It’s like entering the underworld, pulotu  is what we call it.’
Quai Branly, for this commission  invited Semu to respond to a particular item in their collection – a 2007 ‘Bonded by Blood’ poster depicting the New Zealand All Blacks performing their haka in a mystical tropical rainforest.

Auto portrait as La Pieta.jpg
Auto portrait as La Pieta, 2010.

“This was one of those significant moments where I realised culture can be a double-edged sword. I’m Samoan, so why should I touch Maori, who are tangata whenua? It took me a long time to try and figure out how to approach this subject matter, not being Maori myself. But then they didn’t ask a Maori to do it . . .’
“Ultimately it was about finding a common factor between all of these indigenous races – colonialism. We’ve all been displaced and we’ve all had different personal responses to it . . . and some cultures are more demoralised than others’.
Semu’s work regularly addresses cultural displacement and colonisation – particularly religious colonisation of indigenous people. Combining religious narrative with images of Pacific people and motifs, he draws on western iconography and art history to subvert historical western representations of Pacific people.
 “I come from a religious family and so I’m very familiar with Christian doctrine,’ he says. ‘But I’m not practising anymore...
“Now I think all the religions in the world have a piece of the truth but the problem is that they all have zero tolerance towards the other.’    
Semu talks of his own displacement as both a cultural and personal journey. He was raised by his grandparents – a common practice in Samoan families. But while this form of adoption is usually known to the child, he didn’t find out until he was a teenager. ‘When I was sixteen I discovered I was adopted and that changed my relationship with everyone.’
Semu now lives in Rose Bay, near Sydney’s Bondi Beach. “I funded my last couple of years in France from Sydney so it made sense to move.’  He would like to live between Australia and France.  “I really love Paris, but I’m not French, and I don’t want to be French . . . It’s my second language but when I speak it I probably sound like an islander speaking English,’ he laughs. And things were clearly not always easy for Semu in Paris.

Sacrifice for Glory.jpg
Sacrifice for Glory, Greg Semu, 2010.

“Pacific Island people don’t really exist in France, they really are a minority group, and so I was removed from my source of inspiration. Those ten years in France were really difficult years but I guess I take that as a sign of commitment. You know what happens with artists – you get a part-time job, but that job ends up being your full-time job, and your art ends up being your part-time job. So you’ve got to make a choice – and being in France the choice was already made because I couldn’t get a job.’
“I really live quite humbly, and I can afford to do that because I don’t have a wife and kids or a mortgage. That’s the only thing I’ve got going for me. If I had a wife and child I’d probably be a plumber.’
But for now Semu is relatively happy in Sydney. ‘There is a sense of community here – a sense of purpose. I’ve been working with a lot of the regional galleries out in the western suburbs in the last couple of years and there, projects are more community based; bringing in the community and working with minority groups.’
The Last Cannibal Supper... cause tomorrow we become Christians (2010), a series of nine photographs, is the result of a residency with the Centre Cultural Tjibaou in New Caledonia. ‘The title is a bit tongue in cheek.’
There is often an element of humour in Semu’s work, but this is undercut by the more overtly sombre content. ‘During the residencies I try to research local history and create a tailored work... The islands of Noumea are wealthy in natural resources – minerals, oil, gas, nickel – and these have obviously been exploited by the colonists of Noumea – that is Australia and France – [who send] all the profits offshore and nothing back into the islands.’
This work recently saw Semu shortlisted for the Singapore Art Museum’s signature art prize, in association with the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation. The winner will be announced in November and will receive $45k.
“I’m forty now so hopefully I’m blooming into something, even though it’s been arduous, I’m just following the path that’s presented.’