Clockwise from top left image Roger Mortimer (b. 1956), Wanganui 2, 2021. Jacquard weaving, cotton and synthetic threads. 63⅛ x 29⅞ (163 x 76 cm). Estimate €12,000-18,000; John Pule

Pacific vim: the growing strength of contemporary art from Oceania

Established and emerging artists from the region are deservedly taking their place on the international map

A dynamic arts scene has grown up throughout the Pacific over many decades with many artists practising from New Zealand increasingly gaining international attention. It is being driven by the work of artists born and raised in the country — known as Aotearoa in the Indigenous Māori language — as well as those from nations across Oceania, including the Cook Islands, Samoa and Niue.

‘New Zealand has become the place to be, it’s where you have talented working artists and an established, mature market of galleries, dealers and collectors,’ says Victor Teodorescu, African & Oceanic Art specialist at Christie’s Paris.

Alongside Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist Etienne Sallon, Teodorescu is co-curating the auction house’s first online auction of work from the region, OCEANIA NOW: Contemporary Art from the Pacific (11 February–1 March).

The auction features work by 14 contemporary artists: Shane Cotton, Brett Graham, Lyonel Grant, Nikau Hindin, Yuki Kihara, Roger Mortimer, Fiona Pardington, John Pule, Lisa Reihana MNZM, Mahariki Tangaroa, Kelcy Taratoa, John Walsh, Dame Robin White and Cora-Allan Wickliffe.

Shane Cotton (b. 1964), Kei muri ngā mea i te rā  Things Behind the Sun, 2021. Acrylic on Canvas. 78½ x 63 in (200 x 160 cm). Estimate €90,000-120,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
Shane Cotton (b. 1964), Kei muri ngā mea i te rā / Things Behind the Sun, 2021. Acrylic on Canvas. 78½ x 63 in (200 x 160 cm). Estimate: €90,000-120,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

The work of these artists has long been appreciated in the region, with institutions such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington building collections in depth. Also displaying their talent are regular exhibitions such as the Hawai’i Triennial, which is about to launch its third edition at seven venues in Honolulu (18 February–8 May) and the Venice Biennale, where a number of the artists have gained highly prestigious international visibility.

In recent years, audiences in Europe and the US have started to pay ever more serious attention, thanks to major exhibitions such as Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2018 — and international institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London — making significant acquisitions.

New visions, ancient roots

Some European museums curated from an ethnographic viewpoint have been known to display collections of Oceanic culture, which may include work by contemporary artists alongside it, but their practice is usually linked within the context of traditional techniques and art forms.

‘Our idea was to go beyond that approach and to focus on purely contemporary art, as you would do with any other region right now,’ says Teodorescu. ‘These are extraordinarily talented contemporary artists, just as you would find in Paris or New York, each with a personal and powerful artistic vocabulary informed by a rich and thriving personal heritage.’

This does not mean that the artists featured in OCEANIA NOW ignore their creative and cultural roots. A number of the artists, such as Pule, Cotton, Hindin, White and Wickliffe, use techniques derived from Indigenous artistic traditions such as that of painting on hiapo, a type of bark cloth, and natural pigments, or are inspired by traditional motifs, fusing them with the plastic principles of modern abstraction.

Several works by Niue-born Pule are included in the auction, including the recent painting We stayed all day (2021), pictured at the start of this article. ‘When seeing some of Pule’s early works for the first time, largely inspired by the Pacific tradition of bark cloth painting, I was immediately reminded of some of Adolph Gottlieb’s early huge canvases, which are dissected into so many squares,’ says Teodorescu, comparing the New Zealander’s work to the American Abstract Expressionist painter.

John Pule (b.1962), We Stayed All Day, 2021. Oil, varnish, ink, pastel and enamel paint on canvas. 59 x 59¼ in (150 x 150.5 cm). Estimate €20,000-30,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
John Pule (b.1962), We Stayed All Day, 2021. Oil, varnish, ink, pastel and enamel paint on canvas. 59 x 59¼ in (150 x 150.5 cm). Estimate: €20,000-30,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

But Pule’s current dreamlike, almost-aquatic landscapes have a sublime air, too, with the human figures dwarfed by towering plant life. ‘It’s both figurative and abstract art, filled with great poetry,’ Teodorescu adds, referencing Pule’s standing in New Zealand as an important literary figure as well as a visual artist.

Others, such as Reihana, tackle the legacy of Western colonialism in Oceania. The artist represented New Zealand at the 2017 Venice Biennale with her monumental video installation In Pursuit of Venus (Infected), a dramatic imagining of Captain James Cook’s travels around the Pacific Ocean and his interactions with its peoples superimposed on a background based on a popular 19th-century French wallpaper called Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique.

Lisa Reihana (b. 1964), Cooks Transit of Venus (12520, 13065), 2015. Print on Canson Archival Rag paper, Diasec mounted, printed 2017. 631⅛ x 29⅞ in (163 x 76 cm). Estimate €10,000-15,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
Lisa Reihana (b. 1964), Cooks Transit of Venus (12520, 13065), 2015. Print on Canson Archival Rag paper, Diasec mounted, printed 2017. 631⅛ x 29⅞ in (163 x 76 cm). Estimate: €10,000-15,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

This work was the centrepiece of the Royal Academy’s Oceania show and was jointly acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019. A print showing a scene from the video, Cooks Transit of Venus, is included in the Christie’s auction.

Roger Mortimer, of New Zealand pakeha (European settler) descent, reflects on the past with a uniquely contemporary lens. ‘By his combined use of Medieval-like illustrations and imaginary maps bearing exclusively Māori names, he inverts Western perspectives, which is extraordinary,’ says Teodorescu. His tapestry Wanganui 2 (2021), for example, shows figures based on medieval illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy descending on a maritime chart of the New Zealand port city.

Roger Mortimer (b. 1956), Wanganui 2, 2021. Jacquard weaving, cotton and synthetic threads. 63⅛ x 29⅞ (163 x 76 cm). Estimate €12,000-18,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
Roger Mortimer (b. 1956), Wanganui 2, 2021. Jacquard weaving, cotton and synthetic threads. 63⅛ x 29⅞ (163 x 76 cm). Estimate: €12,000-18,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

Similarly, Walsh, who is of Māori and Irish descent, draws references to Indigenous mythology in his surrealist, darkly symbolic paintings. Marakihau (2021) depicts one of the merman-like sea monsters of legend that point to the amphibious origins of the human race.

John Walsh (b. 1954), Marakihau, 2021. Oil on panel. 35⅜ x 47½ in (90 x 120 cm). Estimate €15,000-24,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
John Walsh (b. 1954), Marakihau, 2021. Oil on panel. 35⅜ x 47½ in (90 x 120 cm). Estimate: €15,000-24,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

Pushing the boundaries

Christie’s specialists responsible for the curation of the exhibition enlisted the help of the prominent New Zealand dealers Alison Bartley and John Gow, who have both worked over the past three decades to promote the region’s contemporary artists, in accessing works for OCEANIA NOW.

Teodorescu notes the importance of acknowledging the varied approaches across media beyond the selection in the auction. ‘The auction is not a panoramic view,’ he says. ‘The scene is even larger and richer.’ Many emerging artists are focused on pushing the boundaries of performance, photography and video art.

Among them is the multidisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara, of Japanese and Samoan descent, who will represent New Zealand at this year’s Venice Biennale (23 April–27 November) with her work Paradise Camp. This ambitious project is inspired by the artist’s responses to issues such as colonisation, intersectionality and climate change presented through Kihara’s fa’afafine [a third gender in traditional Samoan culture] perspective.

‘The selection of Yuki was significant,’ says Caren Rangi, chair of the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa and commissioner of the biennale exhibition. ‘It highlights that we are overdue to be including Pacific Indigenous perspectives in global dialogues.’

Yuki Kihara (b. 1975), EFKS Church, Maraenui, 2017. Lenticular print. 41⅛ x 58½ in (104.5 x 148 cm). Estimate €10,000-15,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW  Contemporary Art from the Pacific  Online, 11 February–1 March
Yuki Kihara (b. 1975), EFKS Church, Maraenui, 2017. Lenticular print. 41⅛ x 58½ in (104.5 x 148 cm). Estimate: €10,000-15,000. Offered in OCEANIA NOW : Contemporary Art from the Pacific | Online, 11 February–1 March

Kihara’s lenticular photographic print EFKS Church, Maraenui (2017), which is included in the Christie’s auction, is part of a performance-based photographic and film series in which the artist embodies the Biblical character of Salome and visits various locations around Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, dressed in a black Victorian mourning dress. A central theme of the work is the Samoan conception of interconnected time and space.

Although work from Oceania is as diverse as the cultures and languages found on its many islands, common threads can be found between artists from the region, says Nicholas Thomas, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, who co-curated the Royal Academy’s Oceania exhibition.

Many exhibit ‘a world view deeply conscious of ancestral identity, the mana [in Te Reo Māori, connoting spiritual power] of customary art, and the ruptures associated with colonialism and, indeed, colonial violence. They also have a shared ambition — to produce work that is as compelling and challenging as that of artists in any other part of the world, and that has the capacity to speak from Indigenous perspectives across oceans and hemispheres to international audiences.’