Posted By: Mark Cross - 05 Jul, 2019
An interview with Russian art writer Sergei Gromov focusing mainly on environmental concerns but also with an interest in artists producing from isolated places in the world.
S. You were born in Auckland. It is the largest city in New Zealand. At the age of 23, you moved to Niue Island, where about 1600 people now live. It’s written in your biography that Niue is your wife’s birthplace. Changing the place of residence from the metropolis to a small island was not difficult for you? Probably in Niue you can not buy much of what you can buy in Auckland.
M. Yes, This was in 1978 and Niue was still very primitive while the population then was about 3000. I worked briefly as an engineer but found I could make more money from doing small paintings while still developing a technique and style. It was hard living but we didn't need much money as I would grow my own food and catch sea food. A much freer life than living in the city. But as my paintings improved we moved back to the city in 1981 so I could show my work to a wider audience. Over 8 years my painting career grew and I started planning to return to Niue which we did in 1992. We still have a home and studio North of Auckland were I spend 3 months in the Summer.
S. Some of your paintings depict objects floating in water. One of them looks like a basket, others look like fantastic objects. I'm not sure I understand this correctly. What are these objects and what do they mean?
M. I think you mean floats from the vast industrial fishing industry in the Pacific. We never see these ships but we collect the floats and nets that wash upon our shore. These paintings are statements about the Pacific Islands' concern about the raping of our fishing grounds by large countries who are destroying our livelihoods and food sources. Other paintings are of plastic consumer items floating in the water are a statement about the plastic pollution of our oceans. Fortunately Niue is not in the currents that bring a lot of waste to our shores (Like Hawaii) but we see it growing every year. Plastics are an equal threat to humanity as global warming and is often over-looked when we are all focusing on climate change.
S. In your paintings there is concern for the deteriorating situation on the planet. One of them depicts people, landfills and smoke. But environmental problems, poverty in many African countries, overcrowding in countries like Haiti are very difficult problems. What do you think we can do about it? Some scientists are skeptical and believe that in the next 30 years, humankind will face a global ecological catastrophe.
M. I hate to be pessimistic but I am inclined to believe those scientists. As mentioned we go to Auckland in the summer every year and notice the growth in traffic, plastic waste and population increasing all the time. People who live there don't notice it happening around them but while there are small efforts to redress the problems it isn't enough and so the problems are likely to get out of control if they aren't already. And this is in New Zealand where the population is less than 5 million. I cannot comprehend what it must be like in the places you mention. The painting you mention is "Leaf Gatherers in the Season of Entropy" . Entropy is like when a fire uses up all its fuel and exhausts itself, the inference being, its what is happening to Humanity. The figures in the painting represent the small developing countries who contribute little to these problems but are the most affected by the over-use of fossil fuels. In particular the low islands of the Pacific whose coastlines are eroding exponentially. Short of insisting that fossil fuels and other CO2 creating substances are reduced I have no solutions to the problems. We must not ignore the scientists though. The paintings are just my small way of trying to create awareness by creating more detailed questions than answers. It may seem ironic that I spend most of my time in a country that suffers little from any of these problems, Niue being well above sea level and with such a small population. But we are affected by it to a degree, mainly with the growing number of catastrophic storms that visit us in the cyclone season which, along with higher temperatures, add to the threat to our coastal ecosystems. And islands are microcosms, analogies of the Earth, because everything is scaled down, we can see more clearly what is happening .
S. I could not find in Google photos of your Shrine to Abundance installation. Can you tell us a little about this job?
M. In the 1990s we had a small arts collective who, after exhibiting a group show in Auckland were asked to create an artwork for the Asia Pacific Biennial in Brisbane, Australia. This was and installation fixed inside a shipping container called the Tulana Mahu which in English means Shrine to Abundance. It was a celebration of the abundance of food grown in Niue but the container also represented the imported food that Niue now relies on for greater variety.
S. Tell us a little about the traditional culture and art of Niue Island. In publications in Russian they write that traditional music and dances are preserved on the island. In addition, despite the fact that most of Niue’s residents are Christians and go to church, they still have some traditional fishing rituals.
M. Yes, although the island was Christianised in the 19th Century by English missionaries the Church tends to be more of a social focal point rather than a spiritual one although some people are obviously religious in a Christian way. Many of the hymns and traditional songs still mention the old Animistic gods like Tangaloa who comes in several forms and is a generic god throughout Polynesia. These old gods and beliefs are intertwined with the modern Christianity which gives the religion a unique Niue flavour. Yes there are a number of rituals surrounding fishing and planting and one important one is the Yam blessing which happens every April when the yams are ready to harvest. This would have been a traditional ritual but is now done by the Church.
S. In Russian there are publications about the artists of New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. Of the artists working on the small islands of Polynesia, I only know about you and about the French artist Melanie Dupre, who lives on Huahine Island (French Polynesia). Could you give me the names and surnames of other famous artists working on the small islands of Polynesia, whose works can be viewed on the Internet?
M. I have two artist friends who exhibit internationally and live mainly in the Islands. Both focus on their identity as Pacific islanders but have grown up in New Zealand cities. The most famous of all is John Pule who is also a poet and novelist. He left Niue at the age of two in the early 60's and built his painting reputation on focusing on the traditional art of Hiapo, better known as Tapa or Bark Cloth. He has built a home in Niue 4 years ago and now spends most of his time here while exhibiting mainly in New Zealand but exhibiting in museum shows internationally. A kind of interface between traditional and contemporary art forms he has been involved in an extensive survey of the art of bark cloth at the Royal Academy of Arts in central London. This exhibition has now moved to the Musée du Président Jacques Chirac in Paris and opens in 2 weeks time which John will attend.
More heroic in her attempt to live in her homeland Rarotonga, in the Cook islands, while developing a market overseas is Mahiriki Tangaroa. After growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand and receiving a degree in photography she returned to Rarotonga in her early 20s and started painting. In her 40's now, she continues to exhibit in New Zealand and has been involved in art fairs in New York while living permanently in Rarotonga. Like Pule, her work draws mainly on traditional art and in particular, her name sake Tangaroa (Tangaloa in Niue) also a major god in her culture. I should add that Rarotonga is a major tourist hub and so there is a local market for art there particularly through a dealer gallery who also has international aspirations Bergman Contemporary Art, whom I am also involved with.
S. Have you heard of a person like Nicolai Michoutouchkine (1929-2010)? He was born in France, but his parents were immigrants from Russia. I do not think his paintings are interesting, but he did a lot as a researcher and collector of Polynesian art.
M. Yes Nicolai and his friend Pilioki were pioneers of Island based contemporary art (and Gauguin of coarse). I'm not familiar with Nicolai's work but I have several friends who own Pilioki's
S. There are articles about New Zealand in Russian, although I cannot say that there are many of them. I wrote several articles on knife maker and carvers from New Zealand this year. Do you know anything about Russian culture and Russian art?
M. No, not much although I still listen to the music of Arvo Part and Henrik Gorecki although I realise these are strictly Russian. And I have always listened to Vladimir Nabokov's stories when I am painting though along with Igor Stravinsky he perhaps is well know because he went to America. . I read a lot about art of the world when I was younger but no longer seem to have the time. But that was mainly European art history and American contemporary art. Someone brought an exhibition of Russian art to New Zealand in the early 1990s I think. There was a lot of interest in Russia and the former USSR states during and after Perestroika. I saw the exhibition but it tended to contain smaller more traditional work and nothing really stood out for me. If I had the time to research it more I am sure there would be much that would interest me. I have always liked the work of Viktor Safonkin since I saw his work on the internet maybe 15 years ago and I have a not-so-famous artist friend Ramil' Shagidullin from Moldova who paints very nice realist still-lifes as well as other traditional subjects.
S. Even in the past there were artists who worked on small islands. For example, Peter Le Lievre from Bailiwick of Guernsey or Sámal Joensen-Mikines from the Faroe Islands. It was difficult for them to achieve recognition. But today we have the Internet and more perfect transport. Do you think that more interesting artists will appear in the near future working on small islands and other hard-to-reach areas, such as mountainous areas and cold northern areas?
M. A real problem with living on an island or any isolated place is that people expect your work to be about that place. I understood this many years ago and sure, I have used the land and seascape of Niue often but I have always tried to use it as a means to convey a much more universal idea. Just to focus on the representation of a small location is very restricting to the artist while also being limiting for their market. Yes the internet has certainly made it easier to live in isolated places while still practicing Art. I did establish a small market in New Zealand and Hawaii before we had the internet or even email so it wasn't a part of my decision to live permanently in Niue. And living in Niue I certainly learnt a lot about the logistics of sending art around the world. Artist's will always have to rely on city centres to market their art but even that is breaking down now with art fairs and more reputable dealer galleries being established in more provincial centres. With the internet and improvements in transport free and adventurous artists can live where they choose. I wrote a paper about this in 2002 but now it is far more achievable.
S. What advice would you give to emerging artists?
M. Work hard and try to make your own luck because there is a lot of luck involved. You need to live and breath what you are doing and not just create and artwork so you can call yourself an artist. If you do this you can write about your ideas whether they directly or indirectly relate to your art. Use the internet but you still need bricks and mortar places for your art to be seen.Traditionally this has been dealer galleries which are still the best option but there are online galleries that offer alternatives like art fairs where you don't need to put together large regular exhibitions to be seen. A book I'd recommend is "Mastery" by Robert Green. Not specifically about artists but how leaders in their field became successful.
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