The ‘Power and Taboo’ of ‘Pasifika Styles’

Bethany Edmunds, NYU
In 2006 a wave of Polynesian art resurfaced from the storehouses of British Museums. Some three hundred years on from Captain James Cook’s first arrival in New Zealand the sacred objects of a colonial past were revisited, re-interpreted and recreated. Power & Taboo: Sacred Objects from the Pacific was a temporary exhibition of selected pieces at the British Museum, from their unparalleled Pacific collection of art and artifacts, dating between 1760 and 1860.1 Pasifika Styles: A fusion of contemporary style and technological innovation with ancient traditions, [..] unites the new wave of contemporary Pacific art and culture with extraordinary historical collections at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.2 These two case studies will be the focus of this analysis on the perceptions created by the naming of an exhibition. What’s in a name? Who’s telling the story? And, how does this contribute to the museum experience and the generation of knowledge about the Pacific?
Both Power and Taboo and Pasifika Styles presented material culture of the Pacific peoples, and as described by Rosanna Raymond “the Pacific emerge(d) into the public eye in the United Kingdom through a series of exhibitions and associated events that were spread across the southeast, creating a new Polynesian triangle of sorts between Cambridge, Norwich, and London.”3 Polynesia, a collection of cultures whose geographic location is bound by the tides of Tangaroa, the god of the ocean, and the ancestors who traveled aboard waka or canoes to share languages, histories and artistic practices. The role of art and artifacts as taonga or sacred treasures that disseminate cultural knowledge is a concept that is consistent throughout the Pacific and was recurrent within each of these exhibitions. Even though these commonalities were displayed; the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary, art and artifact, primitive and civilized, presented an interesting basis for the discussion of curatorial choices made within each exhibition.
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Advertising images for ‘Power and Taboo’ on the left, and ‘Pasifika Styles’ on the right.
Power and Taboo
The name itself insights imagery of awe and the untouchable, forbidden and exotic, especially when coupled with an unwitting mascot, the feathered head of a Hawaiian god sculpture with bulging eyes and a teeth bared grimace. The impression presented through the exhibitions name and marketing is one of an ancient distant world that will transport the viewer from the hustle and bustle of London streets to the antiquated cultures of a time gone by, allowing the visitor to stare at sacred objects of primitive art, from the safety of their confinement behind the shields of glass cabinets. In a London visitors guide review of the exhibition the author comments “So what we have here are apparently terrifying, nightmare gods, high-maintenance gods who demanded a lot of work of their adherents. Why might these societies, living in what we might think of as an idyllic world of swaying palm trees and soft sea breezes, have chosen to create such deities?”4 This outlook is reiterated by the information presented to the wider audience via didactic labels and the supporting website, the text is set in the past tense with constant reference to the Gods, the powerful and the sacred. The intention of the curators to acknowledge the validity of Polynesian values with statements such as “But traditional beliefs still survive: many Polynesian visitors to the museum come to greet the displays not as groups of objects, but as living treasures with immanent power”5, is somehow diminished by the very display of these objects which effectively discredits their mana or power, and tapu or taboo. Western perspectives continue to confirm the savage image of ethnographic objects, which is again reconstructed through this exhibition and its colonial viewpoint.
The concluding works of the exhibition are a waiata or song written by Che Wilson (2006) that describes the loneliness felt by taonga within museums, and a sculpture by renowned contemporary master carver Lionel Grant. The text associated with Grants carving discusses connections to the land and the ancestors, but no reference is made to either the gods or the sacred. Either the curators decided that only the ‘authentic’ artifacts from pre-colonial collections demonstrate the sacred ‘power and taboo’ or; Grant made a conscious choice to create a carving appropriate for a general audience who needs not be exposed to ‘potentially very dangerous’ sacred objects such as the Rarotongan god-stick6.
‘The only surviving wrapped example of a large staff god image from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.’
Pasifika Styles
‘To me this name immediately places us which I feel is really important but is still not too specific i.e. not Aotearoa…not Samoa, not Tonga but alludes to the Pacific and encompasses us all…the ability to immediately take the person whether young, old, naive, or Polynesian specialist to know where they are heading to.”7
Pasifika is the Polynesian word encompassing the Pacific, and Style has elements of method, fashion, and in a contemporary world alludes to new trends and distinction. As quoted above, the name aims to speak to an eclectic audience, to educate and transport them on a journey through the Pacific. The artists’ voice is prevalent in Pasifika Styles from the choice of name for the exhibition, the marketing and logo design and the label text that is presented in the first person from the artists themselves. The context in which the show was created allows for curatorial choices to be made that would not normally be seen within the constraints of an ethnographic museum.
Co-curated by Samoan artist Rosanna Raymond, and Amiria Henare resident curator and lecturer at Cambridge University, the exhibition was the exploration of a conversation between objects, an artist and an anthropologist, all born in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Built on a trajectory of contemporary Polynesian and Maori art that began in New Zealand in the 1970’s, Pasifika Styles is another stepping stone in the renaissance of Polynesian art and culture being expressed with new materials and techniques, and based on the stories and philosophies of the many generations who have gone before.
The museum catalogue Pasifika Styles: Artists inside the museum is a compilation of essays and photographs that takes the audience behind the scenes to discover the processes involved in the creation of this exhibition. In a book review by Henare she discusses a conversation between herself and Raymond and their desire to push “beyond the restraints of the ‘ethnic art’ box to which it was assigned” and use Pasifika Styles as a platform for artists to present their work and commentate on contemporary issues.8 For such a groundbreaking exhibition critical attention was hard to come by; the UK and NZ fine arts press were virtually silent on the topic and the Museums Journal tried unsuccessfully to get it reviewed.9 The controversial nature of the exhibition presents artists works that challenge the very collection and display methods of the Museum itself, therefore the intention of the museum support was questioned, and Henare says that “for others it was clearly another case of a museum trying to update itself by inviting ‘indigenous’ artists to add their ‘cultural’ art to the collections.”10
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Artists, Anthropologists and the Audience
The debate about the contextualization of ethnic objects is an ongoing topic of discussion between anthropologists, artists and indigenous communities. In her article What Became of Authentic Primitive Art? Errington dissects the evolution of Primitive Art as a category that was invented at the turn of the century, and through the recognition of avant-garde artists and collectors began to gain market value as it entered the mainstream of established art. The notion that “authentic” primitive people live as they have lived for centuries, untouched by Western civilization, and that “authentic primitive art” is work created by those people for their own uses and not for external sale, has been highly criticized.
Critiques by Fabian (1983), Clifford (1988) and Price (1989), among others, led to “primitivism” being thoroughly discredited as a Western ideological construct.11 In New Zealand, the mid 80’s were also a prominent time in the re-evaluation of these concepts as Maori artifacts gained international stardom when displayed as Art with a capital A, in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. In his paper Postcolonial Pasts and Postindigenous Futures: A Critical Genealogy of Maori Art, McCarthy highlights that at the same time, Pacific material was displayed as ‘art/artifacts’ at the American Museum of Natural History, and downtown at MOMA primitive art was hung alongside new masters like Picasso et al to suggest ‘affinities’ between the tribal and modern.12 He uses three examples of ‘Waharoa’ or Maori carved gateways from a 100 year period to assess how the “culture of display was inflected by the complex and specific relations of power/knowledge, modernity and nationhood, (and shows) how different forms of Maori Art were made visible through the categories of display current in the museum at that time.”13
For the wave of Pacific artists who’s work was presented at Pasifika styles the opportunity to engage with the “authentic primitive art” of their ancestors provided a vehicle for the continuation of cultural art practices, allowing the taonga to breathe a breath of new life. A chapter in the catalogue by doctoral candidate Carine Durand, entitled Fieldwork in a Glass Case, describes the ethnographic research process that she engaged in with the development and installation of Pasifika Styles. “It appeared that the Maori and Pacific Island artists involved in the project were conducting their own ‘fieldwork’ both within and outside the museum and that, through their artistic installations they were offering alternative ways of selecting, arranging, and presenting the ‘data’ they collected.”14
One of these artists was Lisa Reihana, a Multi Media Artist whose installation He Tautoko is featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, she created the third Waharoa in McCarthy’s analysis, and was one of Durands case studies. In her written contribution to the catalogue she says, “Pasifika Styles is an exciting model that progressive museums can use to re-invigorate their collections. As an artist it presented the perfect opportunity for me to extend my practice, by directly engaging with Maori customary taonga.”15 Durand continues to explain how her ethnographic research was altered by her interaction with the artists in their installation process, and by submitting herself to Polynesian oral traditions of teaching and learning she became a subject within her own study. The internal dynamic of the exhibition therefore became a research project, a learning environment and a venue for the development of knowledge for both the artists and anthropologists alike. So what then for the audience?
Both exhibitions were complimented by the common network of Polynesian artists who had traveled to the UK to assist in the preparation and installation of Pasifika Styles. A dynamic program of workshops, performances and artists’ demonstrations designed for audience participation, accompanied the exhibitions and highlighted the living nature of Polynesian culture. The openings both honored Polynesian protocols, although each event was distinctly different and further illustrated the role of the living people as objects within the intention of the museums displays. For Power and Taboo Ngati Ranana, the London Based Maori Culture Group, were invited to perform in front of an adulatory audience of museum professionals and media. They then led the crowd through the exhibition reciting karakia or Maori prayers, a practice that confirmed their connection to the taonga, and in turn, reiterated the wider audience’s sense of wonder attached to the power and taboo of the objects.
Contrasted by the artist-driven opening of Pasifika Styles, the Polynesian diaspora of London participated in the process with a complete powhiri or welcome ceremony, which fully engaged the audience and the objects. Protocols based in tradition were led by Che Wilson wielding the taiaha carved spear of his ancestor, reciting and bringing life to the song that was written on the walls of the British Museum. The space resonated with the sounds of an ancient Putatara Maori trumpet, as it echoed through the gallery halls singing for the first time in over a century. Anita Herle, Senior Curator at the CUMAA writes, “The museum agreed to the request that specific items from the collections be used in the opening ceremonies, confident that the cultural descendants of their makers would ensure their well being.”16 The trust displayed in this reciprocal relationship between the museum and the indigenous communities is a dynamic example of the exciting model that Reihana spoke of for museums to re-invigorate their collections.
Knowledge Generation
By considering the content of traditional vs. contemporary, and artifacts vs. art that were displayed in these two exhibitions, certain curatorial choices are reminiscent of Ethnographic and Fine art display methodologies. The myth of authentic primitive art that was apparently dispelled in the 90’s seems to have resurfaced in the form of gods and sacred objects. How authentic are the representations portrayed by the contemporary indigenous practitioners whose work contributes to the continuum of Polynesian culture? If the exhibition names were swapped and the ancient artifacts at the British Museum were entitled Pasifika Styles would this effect the audiences’ interpretation of the objects as living objects with imminent power? What if the contemporary works at the CUMAA were assigned the title Power and Taboo, would the commentary by the artists support or dispel the stereotypes that are evident within these two eminent words? The power, knowledge and nationhood mentioned by McCarthy are no longer a one sided investment, as museum workers are willing to collaborate with source communities and members of those communities, whether artists or cultural ambassadors, are actively engaged in the critique and interpretation of knowledge through objects. Cultural objects of Pacific origin are equally as powerful and sacred as the people with whom they communicate, whether carved in greenstone or Perspex these taonga continue to translate messages of gods, the land, people and their experiences, and the museum creates a sacred space for the exchange of tangible and intangible knowledge to materialize.
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About the Author
I, Bethany Matai Edmunds, am a Contemporary Maori Artist who has learnt the skills of traditional Maori cloak weaving from a young age. In 2000 I graduated from Northland Polytechnic with a Bachelor of Applied Arts: Maori Design and Technology, and since then have exhibited throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and in 2002 displayed my work in Maorien Lurra an exhibition of Maori culture hosted by the Basque people of Northern Spain. In 2006 I participated in Pasifika Styles as an exhibiting artist and, although not in attendance for the opening, I travelled to the U.K. alongside Kahutoi Te Kanawa to deliver a series of weaving workshops and demonstrations to museum workers and the public. I was involved in the opening of Power and Taboo and the closing ceremony of Pacific Encounters at the Sainsbury Center in Norwich, England. I am currently completing a Master of Arts: Visual Culture, Costume Studies at New York University. With a specific focus on the storage and display of Maori Korowai (cloaks) within international Museums and, in a broader context the presentation of Maori, Polynesian and Indigenous histories through the exhibition of material culture.

4 Exhibition Review: Power & Taboo at the British Museum.
5 – 48k
6 (ibid.)
8 Henare, Amiria.
9 (ibid.)
10 (ibid.)
11 Errington, Shelly. What Became of Authentic Primitive Art? In Cultural Anthropology, Vol 9, No. 2 (May, 1994), Pp 201-226
12 McCarthy, Conal. “Postcolonial Pasts and Post-indigenous Futures: A Critical Geneology of
Maori Art.” Paper presented at the conference Crossing Cultures: 37th Congress of the
International Congress of the History of Art, The University of Melbourne, January 13-18, 2008.
13 (ibid.)
14 Durand, Carine Ayele. Fieldwork in a Glass Case: Artistic Practice and Museum Ethnography
15 (ibid.)
16 Herle, Anita. Relational Understandings, in Pasifika Styles, Artists Inside the Museum. Edited by Amiria Henare and Rosanna Raymond. New Zealand, Otago University Press, 2008
17 All images sourced from and
Captions for images 4 – 12:
He Tautoko, Installation detail
(2006) Lisa Reihana
Pasifika Styles
The Do-It-Yourself Repatriation Kit
(2006) by Jason Hall
Pasifika Styles
Dad’s Chair (2006)
Niki Hastings-McFall
Pasifika Styles
Hei Tiki, Maori Pendant
Power and Taboo, British Museum
A Wooden Figure
(1998) Lionel Grant
Power and Taboo,
British Museum
Outer Space Marae
(2006) George Nuku
Pasifika Styles
Carved Male Figure
Power and Taboo,
British Museum
Tangaroa Doll by Ani O’Neil
In Welcome to da Klub Installation
(2006) Rosanna Raymond
Pasifika Styles, CUMAA
pART mAOri (detail)
(2006) Bethany Edmunds
Pasifika Styles, CUMAA

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