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Waves in the desert

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

New Zealand artist Sam Trubridge finds an unexpected oasis at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Modern and Contemporary Art: A Fuller Picture

Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, USA

Ongoing exhibition

I went to Salt Lake City expecting one thing and found another. An airport arrival hall full of Tongan families and giant Tongan flags, all there for their young men − returning heroic from a football game. For this city has the biggest population of Pacific Islanders outside the Pacific and Pacific Rim. I also visited Utah Museum of Fine Arts expecting one thing and found another – in the middle of the desert a living art of poetry, told by the women of the Pacific diaspora, and a familiar silhouette – a body lit upon its coastlines, that dances the gentle waves, the dangerous waves, the threatened waves of a liquid continent under threat.

Walking into the Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition, I am struck by this familiar silhouette. On a vertically mounted screen is New Zealand/Samoan artist Yuki Kihara’s sinuous video Siva in Motion (2012), with an embroidery of hand motions about her moving body. This exhibition curated by Whitney Tassie shows art by female or female-identifying artists. Among static works by Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets (1959) and Helen Frankenthaler’s Wizard (1963) Kihara's piece is liquid, mesmerizing, and iconic. It feels more connected to the snakelike arms, and fingers poised in elegant mudras featured in the sensuous Indian and Balinese carvings in the Asian Gallery next door. It has a timelessness next to Angela Ellworth’s Seer Bonnetts (2010) and Jann Haworth’s chaste Charm Bracelet (1964).

Angela Ellsworth (American, b. 1964), 'Seer Bonnets X, XI, and XII', 2010, pearl corsage pins, fabric, and steel, purchased with funds from the UMFA Young Benefactors and The Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment Fund, UMFA2010.16.1-3

These works by American artists express a stoic North American experience of femininity, with Ellworth drawing on her Mormon upbringing to labour over three meticulously crafted headpieces that are pierced through with hundreds, thousands of dress-making pins. On their outside surfaces they glisten sumptuously with the pearly pin-heads, while on the inside they bristle with their spines like fierce cacti. Jann Haworth is possibly most famous for her work on the album cover for The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). In Charm Bracelet there is an irony to her use of needle and thread to construct a giant piece of jewelry from soft, stuffed linen. It is a wry taking up of ‘women’s work’ and ‘women’s things’ in the context of the male-dominated art scene in the 1960’s, where her partner Peter Blake took most of the credit for their work on the Beatles’ album cover.

Aside from these histories, these works seem stolid next to Kihara’s graceful, winding dance, which haunts me as I move around the other exhibitions. It resonates with the totemic carvings; the Pacific tapa; the exquisite ink paintings of animals by Chiura Obata; even the European dukes, meticulously cloaked in their chiaroscuro and formal regalia; and the renaissance women with their fingers outstretched and curled. The flickering palms of Polynesian dance and the Samoan ‘siva’ hold their fingers in just the same gesture.

Utah Museum of Fine Arts has a familiar layout and programme – featuring a collection of artifacts and works from around the world, broken down by era and region. There is the occasional commission, such as Spencer Finch’s circumnavigation of the Great Salt Lake told entirely through Pantone colours, and a major retrospective of painter Chiura Obata (Chiura Obata: An American Modern, on until 2 September) – timely for its focus on an immigrant who was one of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans forcefully relocated to desert internment camps during World War II. Like any museum it needs programming, and it achieves this through a great lineup of events and the ACME experimental education space, which has recently opened with Marisa Morán Jahn’s Mirror | Mask.

Chiura Obata (American, b. Japan, 1885–1975), 'Sunset, Water Tower', March 10, 1943, ink, color and mica on paper, 15 1/4 x 20 1/2 in, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, gift of the Graphic Arts Council, 2001.28.1

I am also lucky to be there for a lineup of female Pasifika poets, in the museum’s Great Hall, presented by Pasifika First Fridays, a community wide art cooperative dedicated to highlighting, celebrating, and supporting Pasifika arts.

Samoan poet Terisa Siagatonu tells us how a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts (USA) survey revealed that people are engaging with poetry more than ever before, by attending spoken word events, buying books, or reading poetry online. She also describes how women and more people of colour are consuming poetry in this way than ever before. In her own introduction Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng (Hawaii) invokes the arts museum, inviting the audience to make noise and unsettle these walls ‘designed to dissect our culture for Western eyes’. Her impassioned poem laments her family speaking the language of their colonisers at her ancestors’ altar. Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner talks about the twisted bodies of children born after US atomic testing in Bikini atoll – ‘more jellyfish than child’. She then recites The Whale and the Bird, a poem commissioned by the Vatican City about her country’s plight with rising sea levels. Jahra Rager Wasasala (Fiji) provides a powerful dance prologue to an equally empowering recital that recalls the work of Rosanna Raymond – rejecting and subverting the trope of the Pacific dusky maiden – ‘I create the myth and everyone sings for me / I kill the myth and everyone cries for her’. Several of the poets describe the sacrifices their parents made for their children to be educated, and how this education has divided many from their conservative religious families. Moana Uluave-Hafoka, a young Tongan poet from the local Mormon community, talks about her father watching Barak Obama’s rallies whilst voting for Mitt Romney. Other poems talk about the farming of young Pacific Island men for college football and the army (American Samoa is ranked #1 in the world for enlisting US soldiers), and the environmental catastrophes in their homelands – ‘nobody comes from the water / so nobody will care what you do with it’ – Terisa Siagatonu.

Watching the performances from the Modern and Contemporary exhibition upstairs is an elderly Samoan lady in a purple and blue puletasi. From where she is, she can see Kihara’s work, dressed in a full black Victorian dress with its tight neck and many hems, slowly pleating the air around her with the dance of their ancestors. From where she is, she can look down at these young women, their strong voices, and their strong words. As they talk, she clicks her fingers in applause.

From Pasifika of Utah at the UMFA, Saturday, August 4, 2018. Back row, from left to right: Moana Uluave Hafoka, Terisa Siagatonu, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng; front row, from left to right: Moana Palelei HoChing (Pasifika First Fridays Festival co-founder), and Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala.


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