When I was young, up to 14 we were still walking around with our skirts and with no tops, we went to school and the only time we wore tops or a whole dress was when we went to church but at my age we were still running around topless and there was nothing wrong with that. We went to Samoa college and I remember one guy said come and look at our photos and we went to his house and his father had all these nude paintings of girls just in their skirts going to school and it made me think ‘oh’, it made me feel it’s dirty and I realised, I said ‘are we doing the wrong thing?’ But then it made me really angry.
Interview with Pusi Urale, 2013 (1)
Pinks, peaches, yellows, blues and whites blend together in the 10 paintings of the Palagi female figure. Blonde Maiden, a solo exhibition by Pusi Vaele Urale, forefronts societal norms of beauty and measure. I heard grumblings from fellow visitors to the gallery that echo my own first impressions; don’t they take up enough space already?
Elisapeta welcomes you into the foyer space with her head hung. Turning into the main exhibition space the nude forms almost glow against their brightly coloured backgrounds, thickly rendered in acrylic paint. There is a frank approach to shading and tonal variation in the figures. Each painting is bordered by intricate Samoan designs with some almost seeming to claustrophobically enclose the Palagi women within. This tension is continued with the Samoan Tatau adorning each of the figures. Bold geometric patterns in indian ink sit on top of creamy sections of the backs, legs, arms and bums of the figures. They don’t look at home on these bodies. The stark variation in material feels intentional and strangely superficial, with the indian ink sitting heavily on the soft pink flesh. The eyes of Vitoria follow you around the room openly staring from the canvas. Her blue-eyed gaze is compounded by the tight circular bordering, with a similarly bright blue background. Contemplative, Lepora covers her mouth exuding a protective gaze, which when positioned among the other women whose faces are turned away, makes her seem like the matriarch, wary of her viewers intentions.
Pusi Urale was born in Samoa in 1938. Head of the influential Urale family, she has been painting in Aotearoa for the last 27 years. With female nudes prolific in many of her works, you can’t escape the references to the warm sticky history of Western painters re-presenting Pacific Island women.
What happens when you use the nude genre as a tool?
A bi-product of colonisation is the power of dominant culture to mediate understandings of indigenous bodies. This ongoing practice continues today in all media, including contemporary art. Pusi’s works flip that concept on its head (literally), by mediating imagined Palagi bodies, and reclaiming power by being the gaze(r) not the gaze(d).
I can’t think about the ‘legacy’ of artists like Gauguin — who the exhibition texts highlights as someone Urale is referencing — without thinking of Teha’amana his first 13 year old ‘native wife’ or vahine. Teha’amana appears in many of his works alongside his other subsequent vahine. I also am reminded of the gruesome detail that his death was brought on by complications with his long standing chronic affliction of Syphilis.
Looking to artists from the past like Gauguin with the rose-tint that they ‘didn’t know better’ quietly perpetuates this violence today. Urale is reminding us — through calm movements and soft spoken words — that just because this is normal in an age where whiteness dominates…. It is not normal. John Berger’s essay in Ways of Seeing;
‘The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose…. A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and this is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue.’ (2)
It would be amiss to view this series solely within the canon of the nude in the Pacific. There is a curiosity underneath the surface level subversion of an archaic and violent western tradition. There is a respect and maturity in the way the nude figure is rendered in Urale’s work. She avoids the deep, dark feeling of anxiousness which is created by the male gaze, replicated by so many ‘anthropologist’s’ in history, and continually reproduced by young male artists today. This is a process based contemplation of the Palagi figure. Urale toys with nudity and vulnerability alongside tensions between cultural transference, appropriation and exchange. There is an intentional breaking of cultural codes here, and in breaking them you are forced to look beyond the figure.
Taking these ideas with a touch as light as Pusi’s, has a very powerful nuanced reclamation. Each soft brush stroke paints a different story, lightly revealing the space that has been taken away.
- Urale. P, 2013, D.A.N.C.E. art club presents Our Mums, video/ 21.08min
- Berger. J, Ways of Seeing, 1972, pg 33