Polynesian empowerment


POSTED: Sunday, September 13, 2009

With a global vision and grass-roots approach, New Zealand artist Michel Tuffery aims to inspire young Polynesian adults to engage with their cultural history. Tuffery hopes his work, a response to “;the stuff sitting in the museums,”; will incite audiences to consider not only the historical objects in a new light, but their own identities as well.

“;I call what I do visual journalism,”; he said. “;It's the social commentary of art. I'm updating objects that live in museums, creating a contemporary take to bring the collections alive.

“;I want the audience to see that these objects are still alive ... and respond to them.”;





        » Where: University of Hawaii West Oahu campus, room D-102

» When: 12:30 p.m. Tuesday


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)




Tuffery is in Honolulu through Friday as an artist-in-residence at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, courtesy of the Intersections Program housed in UH's art department. Intersections brings in several international artists and scholars annually to promote arts appreciation and to “;broaden perspectives on contemporary cultural issues, often as they are related specifically to Hawaii-based issues,”; said the program's Web site.

Intersections addresses these themes through public lectures, studio visits for artists and visits to grade schools and high schools.

“;Visiting artists discuss their work and put it in a broader international perspective for local audiences. There's critical dialogue and real interfacing,”; said Jaimey Hamilton, director of the program.

“;It's important to bring in someone like Michel. He's invested in inspiring and updating Polynesian culture on a global level using mass media and pop culture in a way that will engage all audiences.”;

TUFFERY CAME into adulthood during the late 1980s during a Maori cultural renaissance, when he and a few contemporaries were encouraged to go to art school. “;There were just a couple of us. Art school had no Polynesians,”; he recalled.

From there, the artist headed to Hawaii in 1991, hoping to research indigenous cultures of the Pacific. “;I thought it would be a mecca for information about ourselves,”; he said. But he was sorely disappointed and left a year later for the Cook Islands, where he soaked up the information he was seeking while doing volunteer work and living with relatives.

The lifestyle shaped his views on such cultural concerns as the official written histories of the Pacific islands—wherein Capt. James Cook bears a huge presence—and their contrast with indigenous viewpoints.

“;That became the solid foundation for my work,”; he said. “;I'm taking advantage of my DNA and looking at another perspective of my history.”;

It's easy to see how Tuffery's experiences and views parallel those of native Hawaiians. In fact, he said, “;there's a huge audience from the indigenous perspective.”;

But his global vision doesn't simply propel him to share his artwork beyond New Zealand, it fuels him to approach that sharing in a multidisciplinary fashion as well. Most recently, the artist has been veejaying for a popular New Zealand band, Rhombuf, utilizing 8 mm film images. He also works on graffiti art with New Zealand youth.

“;I don't limit myself to a genre,”; he said. “;While traveling around the islands, I'm multitasking, doing performance art in Tahiti and sculpture somewhere else. I try to make art that's appealing to youth, like tattoo art or jewelry. We're competing with the PSP (Sony's PlayStation Portable) ... (and) Twitter. It's a visual text generation.”;

Hamilton says Tuffery's approach embodies the concept of creating a sustainable culture—a culture supported by and of support to other cultures via the sharing of values, concerns and solutions to common challenges.

“;Through his example of talking about Cook Island or Maori or Samoan culture, the same concepts apply to (issues) local native Hawaiian artists are involved in,”; she said. “;His work, and how he deals with those issues, can start conversations here. When someone comes from another angle or simply from another place, they can lend a breath of fresh air to one's own situation.”;

Intersections itself is dependent on this type of collaborative support system. The program isn't funded by the university; instead, Hamilton applies for UH grants annually. “;This program flies by the seat of its pants,”; she said.

With half its budget provided by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts this year, and threats of mass layoffs to the foundation, she said, “;we're looking at other avenues”; to keep the program going. Collaborations with other institutions, such as UH's Center for Pacific Island Studies, Shangri-La, The Contemporary Museum and Marks Garage, “;are so helpful, it's the only way we can really survive.”;

“;We're one proponent of many important community-based art programs in Hawaii that bridges international and local resources,”; said Hamilton. “;Especially in this economy, it's hard to keep a program like Intersections running.

“;We all have to rally our resources and work together to show people what Honolulu's international art scene is about. The crisis encourages us to integrate our interests and work on projects that will be beneficial to many aspects of our cultural community.”;