The Inner Lives of Islands

We talk to curator Robbie Handcock about the exhibition the Inner Lives of Islands, which looks at storytelling from the Asia-Pacific region and what these might say about shared histories, genealogies and value systems from the region. The exhibition includes moving image works by Filipino artist and filmmaker Shireen Seno; New Zealand-based artists Christopher Ulutupu, Emerita Baik and Sione Tuívailala Monū; and Japan-based artist Yuki Iiyama. The Inner Lives of Island is on at at Te Tuhi gallery in Auckland until 22 August. The Foundation supported Te Tuhi to hold the exhibition with an Arts Project grant.
A car projected on a screen and a woman singing

Christopher Ulutupu, What’s the worst you could do?, 2021 (installation view) Cinematography by Haz Forrester. Sound & camera assist by Kane Laing. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Photo by Sam Hartnett.

Can you give us a quick overview of the exhibition?

I was interested in storytelling as a kind of pseudo-psychoanalysis, in a similar way we’re interested in dream interpretation.

The narratives we tell about ourselves and to others is revealing not just about our interior lives, but the kinds of core truths we form about ourselves and our surrounds. These can come out in surprising and unexpected ways, including how we respond to stories from other people and places.

Shireen Seno and Yuki Iiyama in particular respond to foreign storytelling conventions in a way that is interestingly revealing about ideas of locality in a global context.

Emerita Baik, Sione Tuívailala Monū and Christopher Ulutupu are all currently based in Aotearoa but from the Asia-Pacific diaspora. In their works, through video and sculpture, they look to personal histories pretty far from their familial homelands.

How did the exhibition come about – what was its genesis?

The exhibition grew out of an interest in a particular cultural exchange between Samoa and the Philippines. I was born in the Philippines and spent part of my childhood there.

I have vivid memories of watching movies at the village makeshift cinema. It was a thatched roof hut with dirt floors, bamboo bench seating and a single box television at the front. The kinds of movies shown were these over-the-top psycho-sexual melodramas.

A photo of film footage of a man, a woman and a horse projected on a screen

Shireen Seno, Shotgun Tuding, 2014 (installation view). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Sam Hartnett.

As an adult in Aotearoa, I’d heard that Filipino soap operas were really popular in Samoa, perhaps similar to the popularity of Latin American telenovelas in certain parts of the United States. Initially I had reached out to Chris and Shireen as artists from these nations respectively. I was interested in the shared history of these two countries—a religious colonial history, a militaristic relationship with the US as well as other neighbours, and their migratory relationship through the Pacific Ocean. From there, I looked to other artists and identities from these two continents to see if these relationships and covergent histories have been replicated elsewhere.

What do you hope a New Zealand audience will take away from the exhibition

The artists in this exhibition are fully reflective of Aotearoa audiences. Asian and Pacific people make a huge part of our population.

We’re at a cultural moment where we’re able to have conversations about the goals, ambitions and limitations of representation in the media, but we still track and count significant milestones when it comes to this issue.

We recently held a screening of The Orator (O Le Tulafale), the first feature length film written and directed by a Samoan person (Tusi Tamasese) and in the Samoan language, as part of The Inner Lives of Islands. This film was released in 2011. These milestones continue to mean something to people. Part of this is realising that these stories are reflective of an existing and very present New Zealand.

Why is it important for the stories of people from Asia and the Pacific have a voice in New Zealand?

So often, we see that people think of Asian and Pacific stories as not from here.

There is so much shared from this region, and Asian and Pacific people are intrinsic to Aotearoa society as a whole. There are also parts of the migratory experience that are shared between Asian and Pacific peoples, and part of that is the presumption of foreignness here regardless of generation.

Aotearoa has a long history of Asian and Pacific peoples living in this country, and as seen with the recent government apology over the Dawn Raids in the 1970s and the 2002 government apology over the poll tax on Chinese immigrants, we’re still contending with a racist domestic history that impacts specifically people from the Asia-Pacific region.

A photo in a gallery showing a woman on a screen

The Inner Lives of Islands, 2021 (installation view). Curated by Robbie Handcock. Sione Tuívailala Monū, ‘Ao kakala, 2021 (left). Christopher Ulutupu, What’s the worst you could do?, 2021 (right). Photo by Sam Hartnett.

How has the exhibition been received?

I’ve had amazing feedback to this exhibition so far. I’ve been personally really excited by all the artists and their work in this show and I hope that has translated in how they’ve been viewed by audiences. Between the artists’ works, there’s a good mix of drama and darkness as well as lightness and whimsy, and I think this appeals to us in the same way many good stories do.

The Foundation supported Te Tuhi to hold the exhibition with a Arts Project grant 

Banner image: Emerita Baik, Nose of a pig, 2021; Head of a camel, 2021; Eyes of a rabbit, 2021. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Photo by Misong Kim.