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Collapse and freedom

Megan Tamati-Quennell explores artist Graham Fletcher’s ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’


<P data-associrn="1402667"></P> <P>In his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings, the contemporary New Zealand artist Graham Fletcher combines 1950s and 60s architecture, furniture, decor, and design with iconic modern art from ‘primitivist’ artists such as Picasso and taonga, cultural treasures, from the Pacific Rim. </P> <P>Some of the taonga in these paintings are recognisable. One painting shows taonga M&#257;ori in the form of mere pounamu (greenstone hand weapons) hung above a 1960s television and in rapport with flamboyant white and pink floral chairs. Another juxtaposes a framed Pacific tapa or hiapo (bark cloth) with a minimal Scandinavian-designed table, an ocean-blue couch, and a suspended pendant light. In another, a Melanesian stick chart is presented on a multicoloured stone fireplace surround and set in dialogue with a k&#257;kahu M&#257;ori (M&#257;ori feather cloak), displayed on a purple feature wall. Yet more taonga, depicted in other paintings, are of intentionally ambiguous provenance. </P> <P>These paintings inhabit a blended space, fashioned by the artist. So what is he creating with these carefully constructed tableaus? </P> <P data-associrn="1528137"></P> <P><STRONG>Mystery and the marvellous</STRONG></P> <P>The first of Fletcher’s ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings were shown as a solo show at the George Fraser Gallery in Auckland in 2010 &#8211; the culmination of four years’ study at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts and an evolution of his doctoral exegesis, ‘Myth, Magic, Mimicry, and the Cross-Cultural Imaginary’. To date, the series has resulted in three solo exhibitions: <EM>Lounge Room Tribalism, Situation Rooms, and Sugar Loaf Waka</EM> (2010&#8211;13). </P> <P>These paintings are based conceptually, in part, on a real lounge room Fletcher saw and experienced in Auckland &#8211; a room he has described as containing ‘an odd, yet complementary, mix of the contemporary and the sacred’:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>Once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, I was confronted by a strange, yet astonishing sight of all manner of “things”. The room was brimming with paintings, sculptures, prints and ethnographic artefacts all painstakingly arranged to achieve maximum consideration for anyone lucky enough to be invited within the inner sanctum. Such a room, abundant with mystery and the marvellous, would require several visits to grasp the entirety of the collection … <SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Like this Mount Eden room, Fletcher’s ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings collage old and new together and situate the ethnographic with the modern. The paintings represent a mixed montage of disparate elements, a type of cultural pastiche. They also represent a kind of collapse &#8211; a collapse of the divisions and boundaries that demarcate time and separate fine art from decor, design from artifact &#8211; and diffuse culture and ethnicity. The collapse, or breakdown, they convey personifies both a freedom and the formation of something new.</P> <P data-associrn="1528136"></P> <P><STRONG>The third space</STRONG></P> <P>Postcolonial theorist Homi K Bhabha’s ideas about hybridity and his definition of third space were key to Fletcher’s doctoral exegesis and are central, conceptually, to these paintings too. Bhabha proposed that all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridisation and that this hybridity forms a ‘third space’. He interpreted this third space as ‘a space of translation: a place of hybridity … that is new, neither one or the other’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> Bhabha proposed that this third space displaced those histories it was made it up of, enabling other positions to emerge. </P> <P>Fletcher’s paintings shadow Bhabha’s ideas and reinterpret them in visual form. The fusion of seemingly incongruent elements in a shared setting are principal features of his compositions. These considered strategies are used to create what Fletcher calls ‘intercultural space’ &#8211; spaces which ‘generate new contexts and … solicit multiple intertextual readings’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> </P> <P data-associrn="1528138"></P> <P><STRONG>The surrealist influence</STRONG></P> <P>Fletcher’s ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ works also take their lead from the European and American surrealists of the 1920s and 30s. Having taonga and modern art cohabit in a collective environment was a practice embraced by the surrealists. Following the movement’s founder, the French poet André Breton, many surrealist artists gathered extensive personal collections of ‘strange and marvellous’ objects, which they collected and displayed within domestic space. The parallels between these ‘domestic museums’, as described by the museologist Louise Tythacott, and the environments Fletcher constructs in his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings are clear: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>Surrealists carefully constructed their domestic museums, populating them with the strange, wonderful, curious objects gathered from the bric-a-brac shops, auctions or during their travels around the globe. By assembling these imaginative worlds into a single room they fashioned the most extraordinary environments …<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> </P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Surrealism is described by Franklin Rosemont in his book <EM>André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism</EM> as ‘not an aesthetic doctrine … nor a merely literary or artistic school’ but ‘an unrelenting revolt against a civilisation’.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> For the surrealists and their associates, taonga &#8211; Africa and Oceania were two important civilisations that they drew from &#8211; became a prized source material. The surrealists were also taken with the power of the objects they amassed, believing them to have mystical and spiritual properties. </P> <P>Art historian Hal Foster and interdisciplinary scholar James Clifford have suggested, however, that the surrealists’ interest in ‘primitive’ art was primarily formal, as they never really engaged with the civilisations and cultures that they were borrowing from. In his 1985 essay ‘The “primitive” unconscious of modern art’, Foster proposed that the surrealists used ‘primitive’ art as means of disrupting Western ideals.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> Clifford submitted that it was used to ‘challenge the familiar’.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> <P>Reflecting on both Foster’s and Clifford’s observations, the surrealists’ use of ‘primitive’ art can then be understood as a device used, like Bhabha’s concept of the translated or third space, to open up new zones and new thinking.&nbsp; Their assemblages, Fletcherwrote in his essay for the Lounge Room Tribalism exhibition at the M&#257;ngere Arts Centre &#8211; Ng&#257; Tohu o Uenuku, Auckland, 2012, ‘opened up possibilities of interculturalism, whether intentional or not’.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> </P> <P><STRONG>‘Le hasard objectif’</STRONG></P> <P>In his essay for the <EM>Lounge Room Tribalism</EM> exhibition, Fletcher talked about experiencing one of Breton’s assemblages first hand, in Paris:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>While wandering randomly within the Centre Pompidou, I stumbled across an installation of objects collected by André Breton … It was made up of a vast collection of 263 objects ranging from tribal artefacts, natural objects, antique furniture, stuffed animals, unusual trinkets, paintings, drawings, sculptures and more. The accompanying wall plaque revealed that Breton had collected over 5,300 pieces of which the Pompidou managed to salvage one complete wall from his apartment for permanent display. </P> <P>… [The surrealists’] creations were bent towards manipulating, organising and ultimately domesticating the unknown, the shocking and the “primitive”. The seemingly haphazard arrangement of Surreal objects is defined by Breton as <EM>le hasard objectif</EM> (‘objective chance’) &#8211; the point of intersection between inner desires and external reality.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Similar to European ‘wonder rooms’, or cabinets of curiosity &#8211; the forerunners of museums &#8211; the surrealists’ bric-a-brac shrines juxtaposed diverse artefacts and objects to make new worlds that were continually transformed, as they incorporated newly acquired taonga and objects. Placement was important. Breton is said to have contemplated the arranging of a new object in his display for days. Similarly, the paintings in Fletcher’s ongoing ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ series shift and change as the artist evolves his ideas and approaches. They are linked, like the surrealists’ ensembles, by being made up of seemingly unrelated material that is collapsed together to create new worlds that he imagines and realises in painted form. </P> <P>As Fletcher was developing his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ series, he, like the surrealists, built up a collection of ethnographic objects that he used as visual references to inform his work. Through this accumulation, he has said, he began to value both their physical and spiritual attributes. His selections of taonga to include in his painted representations of domestic environments also had resonance with the surrealists’ methodologies. Taonga were chosen for their ‘idiosyncrasies and “auratic” qualities’ and with the aim of creating ‘New Worlds built up from the cultural fragments of the Old’.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP> His collection of objects even inspired him at one point to create his own totemic sculptures for exhibition, made from clay, coconut fibre, shells, feathers, <BR>wire, polystyrene, and other materials covered in wax and black paint.</P> <P><STRONG>Points of intersection</STRONG></P> <P>Another of Fletcher’s sources for his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings is an 1892 novella, <EM>The Beach of Falesá</EM>, written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson during his final years in Samoa &#8211; a further example of what Fletcher calls ‘combinational thinking’.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> Stevenson’s story centres on the practices of traders in 1890s Samoa, colonisation, and the dynamic between colonised and coloniser. It also traverses ideas about tapu and magic, artifice and deceit. </P> <P>Fletcher’s location as a contemporary Samoan artist of mixed Samoan and European descent adds dimension to these works. Culturally, he occupies a dual position, an interior and an outside position. It is from this vantage point he explores cross-cultural engagement within an art and a post-colonial frame.</P> <P>The conflicting notions and competing cultural perspectives Fletcher explores in his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ paintings give life to ‘newly translated’ and ‘intercultural’ worlds through the medium of painting.&nbsp; For Fletcher, this was the medium that was able to offer ‘the freedom and immediacy to create imaginative combinations’: </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>These ‘Lounge room tribal’ paintings … portray spaces without people, but through their combinations of cultural elements from the highly spiritual to tourist kitsch &#8211; they talk about aspects of authenticity, cultural interaction and the assimilation of indigenous peoples within the Western landscape. The paintings themselves become a point of intersection between the West and its Others.<SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>Graham Fletcher, ‘Myth, Magic, Mimicry, and the Cross-Cultural Imaginary’, unpublished doctoral exegesis, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 2010, p. 1.</LI> <LI>Ibid, p. 4.</LI> <LI>Ibid, p. 31.</LI> <LI>Louise Tythacott, <EM>Surrealism and the Exotic</EM>, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 44.</LI> <LI>Rosemont, Franklin, <EM>Andre Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism</EM>, Pluto Press, London, 1978, p.1</LI> <LI>Hal Foster, ‘The “primitive” unconscious in modern art’, <EM>October</EM> no. 34, 1985, p. 62.</LI> <LI>James Clifford, ‘On ethnographic surrealism’, <EM>Comparative Studies in Society and History</EM>, 23(4), 1981, p. 562.</LI> <LI>Graham Fletcher, ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ (essay excerpt), 2012, <A href="http://www.grahamfletcher.co.nz/lounge%20room%20tribalism.html">www.grahamfletcher.co.nz/lounge%20room%20tribalism.html</A>, accessed 8 March 2016.</LI> <LI>Ibid.</LI> <LI>Graham Fletcher, ‘Myth, Magic, Mimicry, and the Cross-Cultural Imaginary’, p. 33.</LI> <LI>Ibid.<BR></LI></FONT></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>
image

Graham Fletcher, Untitled. From the series 'Lounge room tribalism', 2011, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Graham Fletcher, &lt;EM&gt;Untitled&lt;/EM&gt;, from &#39;Lounge room tribalism&#39;, 2009/10, oil on canvas, 1620 x 1300 mm

Graham Fletcher, Untitled, from 'Lounge room tribalism', 2009/10, oil on canvas, 1620 x 1300 mm

Graham Fletcher, &lt;EM&gt;Untitled&lt;/EM&gt;, from &#39;Lounge room tribalism&#39;, 2006–09, mixed media, 1580 x 900 x variable height. Photograph by Alex North

Graham Fletcher, Untitled, from 'Lounge room tribalism', 2006–09, mixed media, 1580 x 900 x variable height. Photograph by Alex North

Graham Fletcher, &lt;EM&gt;Untitled&lt;/EM&gt;, from &#39;Lounge room tribalism&#39;, 2011, oil on canvas, 1000 x 1250 mm

Graham Fletcher, Untitled, from 'Lounge room tribalism', 2011, oil on canvas, 1000 x 1250 mm