Articles Fiji Issue 1

Red Wave Art in Oceania

Written by geadmin

PDF Watanabe, F. 2013. Red Wave Art In Oceania. Global Ethnographic.

Fumi Watanabe

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science & at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan.


This paper draws on anthropological fieldwork conducted at the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture between 2004 and 2011. It describes the formation of the Oceania Centre and discusses certain “Red Wave” artists. In illustrating how their style of art is learned and produced, the paper considers the shared stylistic repertoires thought to define such “collective” Oceanic art. When it discovers that senior artists experience a process of “individualization” seemingly counter to the principles of the Centre, the paper turns to investigate the origin of these stylistic differences between the artists. It concludes by discussing the function of style itself, finding that stylistic differentiation emerges not to threaten the stability of “the collective” but rather to produce for artists and audiences alike new relationalities.

1. Introduction

“I … I … I … The young always talk about the ‘I.’ However, when we understand more about what life means, that ‘I’ becomes ‘we.’” Epeli Hau‘ofa, the late founder and director of the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture, said this to me one sunny afternoon. He continued, “We, the people of Oceania, practice art in a certain way, a way that only we can understand and perform.”

In this article, I will examine how the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture (Oceania Centre) can be seen as a central forum for the mediation of a contemporary arts movement occurring throughout the Pacific region. The Oceania Centre examines images of life in “Oceania” and attempts to create a collective notion of “Oceanic” arts among the people of “Oceania.” This paper first aims to understand the Oceania Centre’s principles of “collective” art, then goes on to describe challenges faced by the Centre and its movement. I will seek to identify a critical point in this movement, a moment in which the artists’ desire for individualization runs counter to the principles of the Centre. Indeed, it is this clash that I will identify as the root cause of stylistic differences in the artists’ work. Critically, however, I will demonstrate how this style differentiation emerges not to threaten the stability of “Oceania,” but rather, how style itself is borne from interconnectivity and relationality which themselves go on to form new connections in the real and symbolic realms of social life.

The Oceania Centre views art as benefiting the community rather than the individual. Its founder outlined his vision for the development of contemporary Oceanic arts as follows:

The creative process unleashed must reflect fundamental principles of our societies, in particular reciprocity, cooperation, openness to community (in terms of both participation and viewing) and transmission of skills through observation and participation rather than through formal instruction (Hau‘ofa, 2005:8 ).

2. Collectivity

2.1 Establishment of the Oceania Centre for Arts & Culture

It is generally considered that the contemporary arts movement in the Pacific Islands gathered momentum beginning in Papua New Guinea in the mid-1960s. Led by foreign artists and intellectuals Georgina and Ulli Beier, the movement prompted the establishment of a National Art School within the University of Papua New Guinea. When the country gained independence in 1975, many artists took part in nation-building projects such as designing and constructing the national parliament. Despite the school’s importance during this period, it later closed due to political instability (Beier, 2005; Thomas, 1995).

Today, the Pacific art scene is developing on a grand and diverse scale across New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand Māori and Australian Aboriginal arts combine with the work of immigrants from across the Pacific who are increasingly active contributors to the diverse styles that make up the movement.

Hau‘ofa founded the Oceania Centre in 1997. The Centre is on the Laucala campus of the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva, the capital city of Fiji. For Hau‘ofa, “Oceania” was a zone corresponding exactly to the university’s broad geographical catchment area, which encompasses the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Fig.1 Map of “Oceania”

Hau‘ofa, who witnessed the decline of the Papuan national art school, believes that the school’s formal way of teaching contributed to its demise. Based on his own experience with the creative writing process, Hau‘ofa believes that art should not be “taught” or “studied,” and that a formal pedagogical approach kills the spirit of creativity. Observing that learning in Oceanic societies often occurs in informal sitting sessions with others in the community, he ensured that the Centre never employed formal teachers or approaches and that it opened up all the processes of art production. The Centre was to be a “home for art” rather than a “school for art.” According to Hau‘ofa, the people of Oceania identify themselves by their “home.” The Centre seeks to become such a physical and mental “home” for a unique and arbitrary group of artists. Its annual reports show evidence of great attention to the preparation of its physical environment (Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture Annual Reports, 1997).

2.2 Oceania as “Our Sea of Islands”

Hau’ofa’s interpretation of “Oceania” is stated clearly in his two articles “Our sea of islands” (1993) and “The ocean in us” (1998). In them, he points out the remoteness and smallness of the Pacific Islands, which he sees as the causes of their lack of social and economic development. Hau‘ofa contemplates alternative paths to successful development. He then performs a reversal that illuminates for him a vital change in perspective. Hau‘ofa redefines Oceania from “islands in the far sea” to a “sea of islands.”

There is a gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific as “islands in the far sea” and as “a sea of islands.” The first emphasizes dry surface in a vast ocean far from the centers of power. When you focus this way you stress the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships (Hau‘ofa 1993: 5).

According to Hau‘ofa, Oceania will never see economic, social, or spiritual development as long as it sees itself as “islands in the far sea,” or the “Pacific,” a view rooted in colonial geography. Referring to legends still being passed on, archaeological records revealing the extent of sea traffic, and locally derived techniques of star navigation, Hau‘ofa demonstrates that the people of Oceania (Polynesia2 and Micronesia) had never understood their environment as one of isolated “islands” but had rather focused on the sea that linked their islands and bound the entire region. Insisting that the region’s people will be able to claim their rightful sense of place and historical legitimacy only when they see themselves as the inheritors of this sea of islands, Hau‘ofa calls for the emergence of Oceanic, rather than Pacific Island, identities.

The time has come for us to wake up to our modern history as a region, which so far, has been determined largely by others. We cannot confront the issues of the Pacific Century individually as tiny countries, nor as the Pacific Islands Region of bogus independence. We must develop a much stronger and a genuinely independent regionalism than what we have today. A new sense of the region that is our own creation, based on our perceptions of our realities, is necessary for our survival in the dawning era (Hau‘ofa, 1998: 8 ).

Hau‘ofa’s Oceania Centre therefore represents an attempt to utilize artistic and creative activities as vehicles for lending a sense of autonomy to the idea of “Oceania.” In this way, Oceania itself is reinterpreted as an inclusive cultural and geographic space. As White (2008) comments:

Although Epeli’s writings promote a recentering of thought and practice in Oceanian experience, his is not an exclusivist agenda. Given that assertions of cultural identity are typically concerned with declaring differences and drawing boundaries, Epeli’s Oceania is startlingly expansive and inclusive. Here again, oceans provide metaphors that allow openness and connection. (White, 2008: 20)

Born in Oceania, having lived his whole life in colonial and postcolonial environments, and being a writer himself, Hau‘ofa devoted half his life to finding a way for Oceania to generate a sense of pride that would lead to increased development and happiness. After mobilizing many intellectuals, including a community of writers, Hau‘ofa left formal academia and directed all subsequent effort into founding the Oceania Centre.

2.3 The Contemporary Oceanic Arts Movement: Aims & Principles

The concrete principles of the Centre are as follows (Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture Annual Reports (1997–2004); Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture Annual Strategic Plan 2005–2010; Hau‘ofa, 2005:8 ):

(1) Aims:

To develop contemporary visual and performing arts that are regional, transcending individual nations and capitalizing on the region’s cultural diversity. These arts should be of the kind that all of us in Oceania would consider ours, and be recognized by others as such.

(2) Space:

The place of production must be Oceanic, reflecting the Oceanic values of reciprocity, cooperation, openness to community, and transmission of knowledge and skills through observation and hands-on experience.

(3) Criteria:

To develop our own criteria for assessing the aesthetic merit and other cultural values of our contemporary creations, which is necessary for matters of cultural and artistic creativity that express who and what we are.

(4) To avoid mass production and imitation of others. To avoid the pitfalls of repetitiveness and mimicry characteristic of our arts and culture today, the Centre will always focus on experimentation and innovation.

It is important to point out here that despite the relatively prescriptive nature of his principles, Hau‘ofa’s did not intend to produce a single kind of “ethnic” or “Oceanic” art (i.e., an Oceanic style). Number 4 above hints at his vision of a diverse Centre that encourages innovative work with the potential to embody a re-interpreted cultural and regional identity. Together, these principles set out the core values of the Centre and become, as I will demonstrate, pivots around which artists negotiate senses of themselves as individuals and/or members of the Oceanic arts collective.

Although the Oceania Centre’s activities include sculpture, dance, music, and painting, in the next sections I will focus solely on the last medium. Paintings produced at the Centre are usually referred to as “Red Wave Art,” part of “a new big wave.” Hau‘ofa coined this term when the Centre was established, and it now refers to a school of painting recognized within Oceania and beyond. Artists from the Centre are called “Red Wave Artists,” the exhibitions are “Red Wave Exhibitions,” and sometimes the artists and their work are together called the “Red Wave Collective.” This phenomenon realizes Hau‘ofa’s goal of integrating the Centre’s activities into a collective movement rather than just a school of art.

2.4 Learning Through Imitation

The principles of the Oceania Centre listed above seek actualization through a unique pedagogical method: learning through imitation. Usually artists are not commissioned to produce. This freedom extends to the artists’ selection of motifs and themes for their work. Almost all of the Red Wave artists began their careers at the Centre without any sort of formal art education. For them, the Oceania Centre is not a mere atelier but rather an informal school in which they learn about art and techniques for producing it. This learning occurs through the aforementioned holistic experience of “sitting around in the community,” and the acquisition of painting technique sometimes relies on an ability to imitate senior artists. There is even a moment when senior artists will directly involve themselves in an amateur’s work by physically contributing brushstrokes to the amateur’s canvas. One senior artist explained to me:

More or less, all the artists start off by imitating. They teach in that way even in Western art schools. Indeed I learned a lot from John Pule or William. Maybe we, the Red Wave artists, will have a similar root. But I believe it’s fine if each artist grows his own branches after the root takes firmly. All the artists are suffering, you know, in their minds and in their actual lives. I’ve come to earn good enough money. I won’t be grabbing their source of income just because they imitate my work. (July 27, 2005)

According to the data I collected from the participant observation between 2004 and 2005, it turned out that  amateurs lend hands to other amateurs, middle-ranking artists lend hands to amateurs and to other middle artists, and seniors lend hands across all ranks. As these occurrences, crucial moments in the encouragement of imitation, decrease as an artist’s status increases, we can perhaps best view such imitation as a learning process. The complete lack of formal teachers and teaching at the Oceania Centre creates a social environment that reinforces the learning process, fostering a direct, sensational, and holistic set of connections among the artists and among their works. When an artist reaches a certain level of skill in interpretation and technique, “hand-lending” declines steeply and he begins to seek his own unique style.

 3. Divergent Painting Styles

After an iconographic analysis of about 250 works produced by 11 artists during 2003 and 2005, I have found that the higher the status of the artist, the more limited the selection of “motifs” and themes become, and that these motifs and themes are shared with other artists (Watanabe, 2007). When “style” was examined, however, the opposite trend emerged: after a period of sharing, artists tend to search for ways to diverge from common styles.

Though the issue of style in visual art has been discussed at length by both art critics and anthropologists, especially with reference to the cultural patterns they inform and are informed by, I will, at present, use the term “style” as the local artists do, to mean “a way of painting”. I will return to a detailed examination of style in the last section.

3.1 Basic Styles

Styles of painting at the Oceania Centre can be seen as belonging to one of two categories: basic or differentiated. “Basic” styles exist across all ranks of Red Wave artists and include the “Grid” style and the “Liquid” style.

3.1.1 Basic Style 1: Grid Style

The Grid style, which arranges gridlike lines on a canvas, is the most basic style and appears among all Red Wave artists. It has its origins in tapa cloth, which is still prevalent in Oceania. As a contemporary artistic style, it was first attributed to John Pule3. The grid is generally filled with traditional designs such as those seen on tapa cloth. The Grid style is thought to be the most important common attribute of Red Wave painting and widely recognized as an orthodox “Oceanic style.” Inside a grid, which may be only one part of a larger work, a story and accompanying worldview are depicted. Each box contains its own story, which often relates to stories in other boxes. The style is thus characterized by a sense of integrated meaning derived from the carefully organized portrayal of smaller narratives.

Fig.2 Take These Walls with You When You Leave. (John Pule, 1998)

Fig. 3 Kohai, Koau, Ko Momo (Who, Me and Momo). (Lingikoni Vaka‘uta, 2004)


3.1.2 Basic Style 2: Liquid Style

Obscuring, melting, and blending one object into another is what the Liquid style seeks to do. It has a distinctive method of using wavy lines, lines supposedly derived from ocean and water images. The Liquid style enables objects to flow into one another—a center resolving into a whole, a whole into a part—creating a sense of chaos. This style is considered a suitable way to visualize the mythical metaphors so rich in Oceania. The Liquid style not only blurs the boundaries between parts and whole but also doubts the very idea of boundaries. It also sets out to make connections, usually recognized metaphorically, some of which are subsequently brought into relief, and some of which are thrown into confusion.

Fig. 4 Distorted Journey. (Mason James Lee, 2006)

 We have seen above brief outlines of the Grid and Liquid styles. As I have noted, however, an artist with a certain level of skill will begin to create his own style. While the motifs common in their work are shared among the artists consciously, both the sense of common ownership and the desire for differentiation are rather unconscious. As we have seen, the artists seek to grow out of learning through imitation; however, I shall call the adoption of styles through such learning as “shared basic styles” and term the pursuit of individual styles “differentiated styles.”

3.2 Differentiating from Basic Styles

3.2.1 Differentiated Style 1: Storytelling

Having a “story” is considered a necessary condition for creating Red Wave art. What I term the “Storytelling style” is derived from the Grid style but developed for the proliferation of a certain set of motifs using many thin, monochromatic lines drawn with a paintbrush.

Fig 5. Na Kaci (The Call). (Josaia McNamara, 2005)


3.2.2 Differentiated Style 2: Liquid Style with a Center

In a sense that the outline of one object constitutes the outline of another, this style can be seen as derived from the Liquid style. What is crucially different here is that putting various blended objects at the center makes the work seem one single form when viewed from a distance. The forms of both the central object and its constituents are important, as is the harmony between them.

Fig. 6 Play Me Marama, Eka or Turaga. (Jeke Lagi, 2006)


3.2.3 Differentiated Style 3: Transparent Style

This is a style that originated around 2004 with Mason James Lee, known as a successor to the orthodox Liquid style. Figure 7 shows a drum behind a hand, with another arm visible behind the drum. Mason explains that this is a suitable way to visualize the mysterious atmosphere of Oceanic legends and their (and our) multilayered realities.

Fig. 7. The Great Drums of Motokana (Mason James Lee, 2004)


3.2.4 Differentiated Style 4: “Cubism”

Irami Bulimaivale, who has been at the Centre since 2000, established a style he calls “Cubism”.  He explains:

In the library, I was reading a book on Western art history, and realized, “This is what I want to do!” To decompose what is composed by a power unknown to me, and recompose again by myself with my own hand. What freedom! That is art!

Figure 8. Reflection (Irami Bulimaivale, 2006)


 4. Discussion: On the Concept of Style

We have seen how artists acquire “Red Wave” styles through imitation but then tend to create their own styles in due course. Here we must question whether the desire for “my work,” which led to the differentiation of styles, indicates a clash between the collective idea of “Oceanic” art on the one hand and the desire for individualistic expression on the other—that is, whether the dualistic perspective set out by the dominant Art world has any legitimacy. Toward this end, I will now examine the concept of style, paying particular attention to how stylistic differentiation is thought to connect to the creation of relationality at higher level. In this way we will truly see what Hau‘ofa’s “Oceania” could include.

According to Alfred Gell (1998), style is what enables any artwork to be referred to as whole(s) or as a part of “larger units,” and there is such a thing as the “psychological saliency” of artwork, a function of the stylistic relationship. For him, the purpose of formal analysis is identifying “axes of coherence” within a corpus of works and “structural invariants under transformation”.

Gell took examples from Marquesan motifs, which are carved onto many artifacts or surfaces, including human skin, and analyzed their structure as a combination of a basic motif, etua, and its variations. He describes 12 types of variations and realizes that each adopts “the principle of least difference,” noting that the same principles can be seen throughout Marquesan culture in general. Finally, following his “fractal” worldview (cf. Strathern, 1988), he concludes that the relationship between a basic motif and its modified version, one artwork and its whole corpus, and human “persons” and society follow the same structure, and artworks are “holographic” (cf. Wagner, 2001) fragments of an imaginary totality, or a unity connected by style.

If we apply this logic to the Red Wave styles, basic styles can be seen as functioning like Gell’s basic motifs. That is to say, both the Grid style and the Liquid style can be found in one work of art, yet the same “style” can be found in the relationship between the basic style and the other styles generated from it.

Red Wave art features two basic units (basic styles). It is startling to realize that one, the Liquid style, seeks to blur and remove boundaries while the other, the Grid style, seeks to draw lines into the world. The former doubts and resolves (into nothing) all arbitrary borders, illustrates various potential sets of images in order to lead people into chaos, while the latter re-establishes clear categories and boundaries. It is these two principles that emerge in the styles of Red Wave art.

Moving into an examination of the differentiated styles and looking at, for instance, “Liquid style with a center,” we see it being generated from the Liquid style by reversing its psychological saliency —resolving the center into the whole (and thus approaching the Grid style). The Storytelling style is clearly continuous with the Grid style because of its arrangement of thin-lined stories, which can be attributed to customs embedded in the producer’s body, though it removes the boundary (the grid) constituting the psychological saliency of the Grid style and tries to tell each story in juxtaposition to others without borders (and thus approaches the psychological saliency of the Liquid style). The Transparent style can be seen as a “progressively” transformed version of the Liquid style. We can find no centre at all, only more obscured boundaries, and yet a strong sense of patterned meaning, or what Bateson terms “redundancy” (Bateson, 2000), exists.

“Cubism” is an interesting transformation and obviously different from the others. “Cubism” was organized through contact with the “outside,” not simply modified from the basic unit, though it is also continuous with other “inside” styles for several reasons. The relationship between deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction is the psychological saliency of the Liquid style, but straight lines at the outlines of objects have been strictly avoided even in the Grid style, not to mention the Liquid style. What is more interesting than the discontinuity in appearances is that the artist evaluates “Cubism” according to its access to the “outside.” In other words, he stylizes the “outside” by making it the style’s “prototype” (Gell, 1998).

From an “institutional” art critic’s point of view, Oceanic art itself may be seen as the “outside,” and Irami could be absorbed into the existing art institution by producing what could be called “Pseudo-Cubism.” As we have seen, however, the production of Red Wave art is deeply embedded in its own network of relatedness, styles, and practices. “Cubism”, too, derives from connections wrought from this vast network, and it is this network, or set of styles, that keeps Red Wave art from being absorbed arbitrarily into existing artistic paradigms.

Such a perspective reveals the problem with seeing Red Wave art’s stylistic differentiation as a symptom of detachment from collective “Oceania.” We should view the mechanism of differentiation as the precursor to the formation of styles themselves. Such causation will inevitably lead to dynamic phases of change that may alter any existing principles, patterns, or institutions that stipulate and reinforce them. Contemporary Red Wave Oceanic art therefore avoids the dualism of “individualism versus collectivism.” Instead, it exists within a rich local world of interconnected networks that themselves work to produce change in the internal and external cultural fabric.


2. “For geographic and cultural reasons I include Fiji in Polynesia. Fiji however, is much bigger and better endowed with natural resources than all tropical Polynesian states.” (Hau‘ofa, 1993: 4)

3. A Niuéan contemporary painter and poet based in New Zealand. He is connected to the Oceania Centre: he attracted many quality artists there with a free workshop in 1998, and he was acting director of the Centre for about half a year in 2006. Thomas dedicated his famous book Possessions (1999) to Pule.

4. See Watanabe (2010) for an expanded discussion.


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