New colours from Old Worlds: Contemporary Art from Oceania at October Gallery, London (1998-99)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 18 November 2010
This review first appeared in ART AsiaPacific, 24, p. 92.

Billed as “one of the most comprehensive surveys of the contemporary art of Melanesia to be mounted in the United Kingdom”, “New Colours from Old Worlds” at October Gallery, London, exhibited forty works from Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu and New Caledonia. From PNG, work included paintings by Mathias Kauage, John Siune, Oscar Towa and Apa Hugo; drawings by Alex Mebri; and metal sculpture by Ruki Fame, Gikmai Kundun, Tom Deko and Beni More. From Vanuatu and New Caledonia, Aloi Pilioko and Yvette Bouquet presented two-dimensional works. Susan Cochrane, author of Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea (Craftsman House, 1997) provided an essay in a colourful brochure. Two artists, Mathias Kauage an Gikmai Kundun, were flown to London for the exhibition.

Paintings and sculpture from Papua New Guinea were organised for the most part into art historical “innovators” and “schools” sections. Mathias Kauage, positioned as the innovator, displayed work addressing issues concerning the effects of interaction between transport technology—such as aeroplanes, helicopters and satellites—and local traditions. The work demonstrated his vision of infusing the canvas with bright colours, flattened forms, and references to technology and symbolism. Kauage’s use of birds act as a national reference, relate to religion, and function as a sort of signature—his name refers to a local bird. His imagery is accompanied by written commentary in tok pisin, a Pidgin English dialect.

The work by PNG artists was organised to present a narrative in which direct references to Kauage’s work can be seen as a transitional phase leading to more personal exploration, and to raise the issue of cultural influence and borrowing. John Siune depicts new subject matter of cultural duality with Australia Aid at the Aitape Disaster, 1998, which represents the aftermath of the devastating tidal wave of 1998 in which thousands died. Oscar Towa documents the choices between traditional approaches and outside influences, which affect stylistic consideration such as representation and depth.

As with the paintings, sculpture was organised as “innovator” and “school of” sections. Ruki Fame’s (the innovator) figurative yet abstract sculptures with spiky hair provided a strong presence. Ultimately, the work of Ruki Fame, Gikmai Kundun, Beni More and Tom Deko— who was included in the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial— turned the tables on western artists inspired by the Oceania of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The work from Vanuatu and New Caledonia unfortunately seemed to get lost among the predominance of PNG work. The colourful abstractions by Aloi Pilioko and Yvette Bauquet seemed to beg for visual contextualisation and a more comprehensive presentation.

October Gallery has previously organised shows representing art from Africa, Australia, Haiti, Tibet and Mongolia. Essentially selected by outsiders, “New Colours from Old Worlds” functions as an alternative venue. This show acts as a continuation of London-organised shows which began with a PNG contemporary show at the Commonwealth Institute in 1988, but unfortunately, the amount of contemporary Pacific art exhibited in the United Kingdom remains minimal. Further shows on art from Melanesia, and other areas of Oceania are anticipated by October Gallery. Virtually ignored by the local art press, ”New Colours from Old Worlds” presented some challenging and rewarding art.