The Inner Lives of Islands brings together five artists who explore storytelling instincts from the vantage point of the Pacific Ocean. These artists play on well-worn narrative conventions of character, setting and plot development as a means of making sense of the unlikely realities they face as Asian and Pacific peoples in the world. Shying away from the coherency of the beginning-middle-end format, the artworks presented here instead embrace a complexity and plurality of voice, logic and linearity.

Though we might understand that the stories we tell ourselves and others are revealing in terms of our experiences and perspectives, in this instance the extension of this truth to the lands we inhabit draws on Epeli Hau‘ofa’s idea that the oceans between our islands act as a vast network of connections rather than separating them into disparate locales.[1] The initial prompt for this exhibition came out of a very specific cultural exchange between island nations—the popularity of Filipino soap operas in Samoa. Although we’ve often seen the border-crossing potential of entertainment media (think of the transportability of reality TV, from the Idol format to the increasingly persistent RuPaul’s Drag Race), it’s interesting to consider the particularity of the exchanges (think of the popularity of Australia’s Home and Away in the United Kingdom, which is a markedly different kind of exchange to the popularity among some of Coronation Street here in Aotearoa).

I was initially interested in what shared cultural values might exist between the Philippines and Samoa that allow for such an exchange to occur. Both countries are deeply religious and both have co-existing and conflicting colonial and militaristic histories with the United States as well as their more immediate neighbours. Anecdotally, I had heard that Filipino shows such as Tayong Dalawa and Sa Piling Mo were shown on Samoan TV without subtitles. If so, what is gleaned by the audience must be almost solely visual—the body language of the actors, the filmic conventions of lighting, framing and editing. What sense can be made, let alone empathy for the characters and stories created, when such a language barrier exists?

Insisting on the role of language here, however, is the kind of coherency-seeking that limits our potential for garnering a rich and complex understanding of the role of storytelling. No story is a discrete whole. We are equipped as people to obtain critical information through a wide array of methods. We interpret non-verbal cues, we analyse context, and we read between the lines. Expanding the voices and perspectives out from that initial interrogation of the Samoa–Philippines relationship, this exhibition looks at the interplay between diasporic identities and nationhood, and the insufficiency of language to describe such experiences.

What’s the worst you could do? is a newly commissioned two-channel video work by Christopher Ulutupu, a Pōneke-based artist of Samoan/Niuean/German descent. In this work Ulutupu revisits a script he wrote in 2012 when he worked in the film and theatre industry. Ulutupu’s practice has had an ongoing concern with historic representations of Samoan and Pacific bodies and their contemporary implications. The Romantic Picturesque: The Postcard Trilogy (2016–18) saw Ulutupu navigating indigeneity and colonial relations alongside popular culture references, high-fashion visuals and a penchant for karaoke performance. This new work maintains some of the hallmarks of Ulutupu’s working methodologies—scenic natural landscapes, dramatic musical numbers and a cast of family and friends—but it also veers into darker territory than previously explored.

The original script told the story of a struggling, recently solo mother of two mischievous boys who finds opportunity in a talent show held at a local RSA, but which ultimately results in an altercation with her ex-husband. However, What’s the worst you could do? sees dialogue removed altogether. The characters remain—the protagonist solo-mum, the antagonist ex-husband, and the cheeky boys—but their intentions and motivations are murkier. In a particularly haunting scene, the original scripted altercation is reimagined as a group assault on an empty car; the initially lone woman soon joined by six other figures armed with sticks and cricket bats. As in Ulutupu’s previous work, the series of scenes may be connected as closely as the viewer perceives them to be, but what’s not said leaves greater room for interpretation and, perhaps more revealingly, assumption.

Also working in video is Shireen Seno (Philippines) and Yuki Iiyama (Japan). Seno, a Tokyo-born Filipino artist and filmmaker, explores ideas of nostalgia, family and the subtle violences experienced in childhood. Seno’s 2014 short film Shotgun Tuding is a Filipino Spaghetti Western or, as described by the artist, a “Pancit Western”—pancit being Tagalog for noodles. The film tells the story of Tuding’s search for the man who got her younger sister pregnant, encountering a group of bandits along the way. Shot on 16mm film, the treatment and colouring adhere to the genre tropes of the Western, as do the costumes and props. However, the film is entirely in Tagalog (save one exchange where the titular character boasts of her knowledge of American guns) and is very much set in the Philippines. There is an ad hoc adherence to the genre, with horses trekking through tall grass fields and rice fields, and beyond them coconut trees and bamboo houses with thatched roofs.

Iiyama uses archival material and personal interviews to explore various social stigmas. Moomin Family goes on a picnic to see Kannon (2014) sees the artist’s sister detailing her hallucinations of the Moomins, the Swedish-speaking characters from the Finnish books and comic strip, followed by documentation of her family dressed as the comic’s characters visiting a shrine to the Japanese Buddhist goddess Kannon. The Moomins— white chubby creatures with large snouts, vaguely resembling hippopotamuses—are extremely popular in Japan, resonating with the country’s anime culture. Both Iiyama and Seno look to offshore narrative conventions to tell particular local stories. While Seno’s Shotgun Tuding nods to the pervasive American influence still present in the Philippines, Iiyama’s work uses a nationally beloved international cartoon to explore some of the darker aspects of Japan’s attitudes towards mental health.

Two artists working in sculpture are also included in the exhibition, Emerita Baik (Pōneke based, of South Korean descent) and Sione Tuívailala Monū (living between Australia and Aotearoa, of Tongan descent). Many of Baik’s interests lie in the indescribable migrant experience of living between two cultures, specifically those of Korea and Aotearoa. Informed largely by her mother’s experience of moving to Aotearoa, Baik’s work combines traditional and contemporary techniques that explore the histories and stories that objects are imbued with. In Baik’s three works Nose of a pig, Head of a camel and Eyes of a rabbit (all 2021), for instance, the circular sculptures reference the Korean tradition of bottari, a method of bundling possessions with cloth to store, protect, gift and move them from one place to another.

Similarly referencing traditional practices is Monū’s ʻAo kakala (2021). Monū, who works across photography, video, adornment and performance, explores identity, family and Pacific-diasporic queer experiences. The sculptural clouds of ʻAo kakala are part of the artist’s ongoing work with nimamea‘a tuikakala, the Tongan fine art of flower designing. Like Baik, Monū traces back generational and cultural practices using contemporary methods. Utilising plastic flowers and beads, often from the South Auckland variety stores whose products come from giant Chinese online retailers, Monū plays on the associations we have with certain materials, all the while maintaining a lightness and whimsy.

All the artists in The Inner Lives of Islands tell stories about identities that have traversed oceans. In varying ways, they look to genealogies that connect them to their homes, wherever those homes might be. Resisting the coherence of total and singular narratives, they employ layered storylines and perspectives to piece together and make sense of their places in the world. The artworks here are dreamlike, telling of worlds rooted in reality as well as hoping for something more.

– Robbie Handcock

[1] Epeli Hau‘ofa, ‘Our Sea of Islands’, The Contemporary Pacific, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1994, pp. 147–61.

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