As one enters the gallery, the smell of koko (samoan cocoa) and coconut fills the room. This is not common in art galleries. The audience is, therefore, prompted to search for the scent’s origin and drawn closer to Schaafhausen’s floor installation.
The installation is composed of five large white round trays which represent the low-lying Gilbert Islands in Kiribati that are at risk of being submerged due to global warming. These trays are placed in different areas around the room and holds multiple glossy black, white, and brown miniature sculptures (tagaloas) of the polynesian sea god Tangaroa. The tagaloas are hand-moulded from coconut oil, koko, and sand – materials used daily in the Pacific Islands. Similar to the islands, the figures are sensitive to temperature and will disintegrate in hot climates. This adds an interesting element to the installation as a different picture is created everyday. On this particular day, many of the tagaloas had melted, leaving behind mounds of material which combined to create a rich marbling effect.
At the end of this exhibition, all that will be left of these cultural figures will be pools of marbled liquid and the smell of koko and coconut. The viewers would then only be able to visualise the sculptures through the large photographs of the tagaloas displayed on the nearby walls. Here Schaafhausen warns audiences that if climate change continues at this pace, a similar process of cultural loss will occur in the islands. For example, ancestral homes and traditional halls could be destroyed by climate change. All that would remain of these islands would be photographs and historical artefacts.
Developed countries have contributed the most to global warming. However, its impacts are disproportionately felt by the vulnerable developing nations like the Kiribati due to the island’s low-lying nature and lower income. This is illustrated in Ebbing Tagaloa as the exhibition’s tall pristine black and white walls symbolize the developed countries while the melting tagaloas below represents the impacts of their actions on the developing nations. Exhibiting this installation in a developed country further emphasises the role of developed countries in climate change while also prompting viewers to take steps to reduce global warming.
The installation is also a reflection of Schaafhausen’s Samoan heritage. In the past, she has criticized museums for displaying pacific art behind glass as it created a disconnect between the art and the viewer (Enjoy Public Art Gallery). It also reduced the art’s cultural value as an important characteristic of pacific art is that it is meant to be seen, felt, and smelt. For this reason, she aimed to create an installation which engaged multiple senses. However in her installation, a barrier between the viewer and the art is still present as the low height of the trays (used to emphasise the islands fragile nature) makes it awkward to touch.
Ebbing Tagaloa is a thoughtful exhibition which touches on the important issue of climate change. Schaafhausen’s installation cleverly illustrates the need for urgent action against global warming in a typical Samoan interactive manner. This leaves a lasting impression on the viewers and encourages further discussion on climate change.
Ebbing Tagaloa (2015) by Paula Schaafhausen in collaboration with Daren Kamal (Fijian poet) and Ole Maiava (Samoan multi-media artist) at the Fresh Gallery, Otara.