Unfamiliar Territory: The Art of Constant Translation.

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Unfamiliar Territory: The Art of Constant Translation.


Lendon, Nigel.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory The Art of Constant Translation.
by Nigel Lendon

The works I’ll be talking about are not necessarily “prints” - and not all of them are in the show upstairs. But they’re certainly “reproductive” – using a range of print and reproduction-related technologies and processes. In each case the works are produced in conjunction with other artists/artisans (the concept “artist” being not much more than an approximation of the way they saw each other). Whether or not they’re prints is not the question that interests me: what interests me in each case is how they raise different questions about the nature of cross-cultural collaboration, and as a consequence, identity.

These works make me ask myself: what do I assume about artists and the way they work? What do I assume when I look at the product of that work?

Even though I act out my life within a world-view based on the instantaneous flows of ideas, images and knowledges from all around the globe, I find I still assume that works of art are the products of unique, gifted, inspired individuals which give access to their particular experiences, understandings and insights.

Yet when the work is derived from a different framework of cultural practices, or a work is the result of a deliberately collaborative strategy, I find I am provocatively disoriented. Give me more than one mind, more than one creative sensibility, more than one cultural context, and I find most of my assumptions of value are destabilised.

In this talk I have chosen to speak about works which sit outside the canon of artistic individualism, which through collaborative processes seem to me to produce quite different kinds of ideas, images, knowledge and values.

From Food for Thought to New Angel to Cakacakavata

For many years the New Zealand artist Robin White’s work has derived its subject matter, forms and sensibilities from the experiences of her life in the central Pacific nation of Kiribati. Over the last few years she has begun to work directly with the people she was living with.

As we’ll see, initially this was through designing and commissioning works to be realised by others in the Indigenous media and crafts practices of weaving and embroidery. However the most recent work, in the exhibition upstairs, the tapa Cakacakavata, is of a different order, more comprehensively collaborative, and as a consequence all the more challenging for the possibilities of its interpretation.

This way of working began in 1997 with Food for Thought, the embroidered needlework pieces made by Florence Masipei, and the New Angel series of woven pandanus mats produced with the assistance of Nei Katimira at the Catholic Women’s Training Centre in Kiribati. In both cases the imagery was derived from a series of drawings made during a residency here in Canberra, later developed as gouaches and watercolours which were exhibited together at Helen Maxwell’s gallery in November 1998.

The initiative for finding new methods and materials occurred through circumstances of an altogether different and dramatic kind. After her house and studio burnt down in Kiribati in 1996, Robin found herself with only rudimentary materials to work with – A4 paper, crayons, felt pens, scissors, and glue. At this point she began to make drawings thinking of woven pandanus mats, a motif she had previously integrated into her woodcuts, but this time with imagery derived from the work produced in Canberra.

The process for the production of the tablecloth Food for Thought arose through Robin’s longstanding friendship with Florence Masepei and the fact that she was a highly accomplished embroiderer.

Embroidery is a form of women’s craft with its roots in missionary training, now used by many women for the elaborate decoration of lavalava, characteristically depicting floral emblems and the wearer’s name. Florence worked from Robin’s watercolours, and her interpretations of the motifs reveals a high degree of autonomy in her capacity to interpret the original imagery.

The apparently mundane nature of table cloth and place mats is deceptive. The Baha’i Faith, of which Robin is a member, instils a deep motivation to produce work which symbolically represents the potential of world peace and the reconciliation of conflict. Thus while the history of art is full of representations of tables and meals as symbolic subjects, in this instance the table as a site of conviviality and social interaction carries powerful affirmative values. The titles of the works, Food for Thought, and New Angel (the name of a brand of tinned mackerel) together with the other representations of food, drink, and tobacco create an evocative context for daily life on Kiribati, overlaid with a different order of intention. The “new” of New Angel affirms for Robin the potential for change and renewal in matters of identity and belief, made possible through the interactions of daily life.

The New Angel images are woven from pandanus leaves, a sacred material in the culture of the I-Kiribati. Robin conceived of the idea of these images conscious of the colourful and innovative mats produced in Tuvalu, in which they weave the substructure of the mat and then insert the coloured elements. This is a style adopted by the I-Kiribati weavers which they call Te Wanin – described by textiles artists in Australia as a warp and weft overlay. As with the symbolic potential of food and table-settings, the pandanus itself has both mundane and spiritual connotations. Pandanus is believed to provide the key to their origins and the history of the occupation of the islands by the i-Kiribati.

With the idea for a collaboration in mind, Robin devised a diagonal grid, enlarged and photocopied it, and then produced six gridded drawings, in their full coloured complex version. To produce these images Robin went to the Women’s Training Centre in the village of Tayo-rayrekky (Teaoraereke). With all the sets of drawings complete, she talked to Nei Aroita and Nei Katimira at the Centre. Nei Katimira was known to Robin as already a very accomplished weaver and was in charge of the handicrafts program run by the centre. These women already had the advantage of an infrastructure capable of carrying out the project Robin proposed. And Katimira was enthusiastic, said they could do it, and immediately saw its possibilities for the women at the Centre. So the gridded plans were laminated and left with Katimira, and the work began under her direction.

White then worked from the full colour images to a second more monochromatic version, and finally to a third set, the most simplified version of each of the six images.

The three “sets” differ insofar as the image appears (if looked at in reverse order of simplification) to be a kind of distillation of the iconic value of the image. The original images (in full colour) are progressively stripped of their easy equivalence to both their commercial origins and to her own art (as with the landscape motifs in the coloured versions) through working back towards their graphically most reduced elements, simultaneously closer to their Indigenous equivalents.

As might be expected from the nature of the commissioning process, in both Food for Thought and the New Angel series, the imagery derives from Robin White’s previous work in both style and content. Curiously, even the isometric micro-structure of the woven images strikes a continuity with her earlier prints, paintings and drawings, both through her consistent conjunctions of image and text, of image and landscape, and through the sense of graphic devices which suggest spatial compression. This, with the deliberately questioning relation between text, translations and motifs derived from popular commercial culture, are all characteristics of her work over an extended period of time. The compression and simplification of the imagery, the deadpan irony of trademarks which resonate with echoes of the readymade, and the readymade’s capacity to suggest a disjunction between cultural and economic contexts gives these works their incisiveness – at once quietly reflective and pointedly analytical.

The tapa of the Cakacakavata project were made with Leba Toki, who lives in the Lau Group in Fiji. The title of the three-part tapa means “working together”, which in this case has a profoundly symbolic value for the two artists, and through its subject matter, the references to food are similarly loaded. Leba describes the collaborative process in relation to the importance of “consultation” – a value they both derive from their common Baha’i beliefs. They speak about a higher motivation for working together in order to demonstrate the possibility of collaboration as a symbolic process embodying hope and optimism for a peaceful and harmonious world. As the project developed, both came to recognise the complexities of their differences, and the way in which the work inhabits a space between the conventions of the different worlds they inhabit.

Robin says she was motivated by the traditional tapa she used to see hanging in the transit lounge at Nadi airport on her many visits to and from Kiribati, and she tells how she made drawings of the details. She tells how the tapa stimulated her interest – they “worked on me over very long time” – by contrast to her familiarity with Samoan and Tongan equivalents.

Through their Baha’i connections she had visited Leba and knew that she used to make small tapa: as Leba says “this is my job, every day, in the village”. For Leba also, tapa is a sign of the outside world, in that it derives from Tonga – the influence of which is strong in the Lau group.[1] In suggesting they work together, both accepted the symbolic dimension of the act of working (as they said) “across the threshold” as being “about people figuring out how to live together”, and through this process they are embodying the wider implications relating to the universalist beliefs of Baha’i.

Cakacakavata is the outcome of Robin and Leba working together for one month at Robin’s house and studio in Masterton, New Zealand. The themes and titles of the three-part work, Milk , Sugar and Tea (all of which are produce with Fijian associations), share similarly mundane associations as the New Angel series which preceded it. The work’s invitation to “a cuppa tea” was embraced by Leba in recognition of its deeper symbolic potential as the scene of social interaction.

In the collaborative process, Robin’s influence is clear in the overall structure of the images – which are derived from flattened out packaging – and the inclusion of minor imagery both related to the New Angel series and other icons of Fijian origin, along with other autobiographical sources.

Thus (in Tea) the Hindu hand gesture, together with teapot and cups, spoons, and the originial insignia of the lion holding a sword is transformed into a lion holding a Fijian war club (a postcolonial icon if ever there was one).

In Sugar we find the inclusion of the kava bowl tanoa, fan ici, the club viri, the ceramic bowls saqmoli. Elsewhere we find such diverse elements such as the barcode, and Matisse’s cut-out birds (this was Robin remembering Matisse in Tahiti in the 30s, plus seeing the cut-outs here in the NGA).

Cross-cultural icons are not unknown in Fijian tapa. For Robin the themes of packaging and popular cultural icons evoke signs of postcolonial modernity whereas the material qualities and patterning of the tapa relate directly to Leba’s traditional experience. Leba says the innovation implicit in this approach to the image is “very new” to her, despite some innovations which are very Fijian – such as the inclusion of centipedes which wander around the edge of Milk, humorously referring to the consequences of gossip (which could be thought of as an excess of conviviality).

The autobiographical dimension of these works is something that is also challenged by the process of working collaboratively. Such elements exist in a particular kind of balance, each questioning its origins in the other artist’s identity. The viewer is lead to ask: who speaks through which element, through which episode of the process, through which material, process or sign?

One autobiographical reference is the moko from the portrait of Robin’s great-grandmother Mere Te Wia painted by Joseph Merrett in 1850 in the Auckland Museum.

The image of the Chelsea Sugar factory is another such motif for Robin. Albert Tikitu, Robin’s father, used to work in the factory when her family lived in Birkenhead on the north shore of Auckland city in the early 50s - she remembers seeing it on walks along the clifftop – and here again she finds its iconic representation beckoning to her from the packaging she discovers in Fiji.

The packages are much modified in their final form in the tapa, although they’re still recognisably specific to their origins. These modifications and variations are the record of many decisions made between the two artists which occurred at the microiconic level.

At another scale whole sections of the image’s original structure have been modified, moved around, and sometimes replaced by passages of traditional patterning. Thus at one level the work can be understood as a record of its own creation, the implicit narrative between the two artists as their modes of creativity interacted one with the other.

Many traditional aspects of the structure of the tapa are still present, and subject to Leba’s initiative and authority. Thus the outside rows of stencils are called waqani – the next inner row is codo, the next draudrau ni damu “crab pattern”, and so on.

The other icons are called tutuki (the lava bowl, the fan, the club, the ceramic bowls). Newcomers like Matisse’s birds are also called tutuki and sometimes in these works they escape the structure, and float “in the nighttime area” in the black sections outside the frame created by the structure of the package.

Some of the internal devices – like the double black lines around forms – are derived from traditional designs. Sometimes elements such as the cruciform in the Milk tapa, began as elaborations of a simple graphic form, which through alternating decisions, oscillating between tradition and innovation, oscillating between each artist’s hand, to arrive at its final resolution.[2]

In its traditional usage, tapa is used for many other purposes, clothing, blankets, and rites of passage such as birth, death, marriage, and birthdays. For high ranking persons, very long tapas are still produced as ceremonial gifts, sometimes personalised with the individual’s name.[3] In discussions with Leba about her role, Leba speaks with enthusiasm about future works, tapa of different proportions which correspond to the specific shape of costumes made for weddings or other events like birthdays and funerals.

In Cakacakavatu, despite their different backgrounds, authority and experience within their previous practice, each artist was a relative novice to the conventions and processes the other brought to the collaboration. Indeed the translation of the processes, habits and conventions each participant brought with them was sometimes a volatile mix. Leba laughs when she tells of her frustration at Robin’s experimentation when the pigments are prepared and ready to go.

So I ask myself: in what ways is the outcome unconventional to Western eyes? I have deliberately focussed on those aspects of the work which take me beyond my expectations, and forced me to reassess the effects of cross-cultural experience on visual form. To pose the question in a different way – how might it be read cross-conventionally? Are they too disjunctive, compromised by their stylistic diversity? Or too didactic an outcome or somehow constrained by the each artist’s interventions in the other’s practice? To the contrary, in each or all of these instances, I find I am forced to re-think a whole range of assumptions about my conventional ways of seeing.

For any artist, a new medium is provocative. For these artists the collaborative process was also an invitation to engage productively with each other’s traditions and to accept the challenge to their conventional ways of working.

Collaboration and interaction across cultures might well be understood as a response to a utopian idealism motivated by a desire for some kind of universal equivalence between creative practices. This now happens so often that it seems that acting outside one’s traditional sphere has itself become a shared cultural tradition, a characteristic of late twentieth century modernity. In the case of Baha’i, this kind of motivation is a given.

Implicit in every work of art is the internal narrative of its own making. However in the case of works of art made collaboratively, such narratives become central to the ways in which such works may be interpreted and understood. As Vivienne Binns has commented, there is a sensual intellectual pleasure which derives from the creative uncertainty such projects engender. In such art each element of the work resonates with a particular kind of sociality, and each element poses new questions about the nature of creativity itself.

© Nigel Lendon, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.



[1] People in only two Fijian islands make masi (tapa) - Moce in the Lau group and Vatulele near the main island Viti Levu.

[2] The sequence of application of colours is determinined by tradition: first is black loaloa then the light brown (tassina – the application of kesa – mangrove juice by itself, patted on with netting for underneath padding producing the textured surface), then brown umea and then the final black. Pigment is applied with tata – sponge made of shredded tapa, wetted with mangrove juice kesa, rolled in the red clay. Black comes from soot made by burning kerosene in an old rusty biscuit tin. In earlier days, black was derived from burning the seeds of the sikeci tree.

[3] Neich, Roger, and Mick Pendergrast. Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific, London, 1997, p.98