Matisse Alive exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales 23 Oct 2021 – 3 April 2022
Review by Margaret Cassidy
Artist projects from around and across the Pacific, including significant collaborative projects by Pacific Islander artists form a significant part of the contemporary response to work of Henri Matisse in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ exhibition Matisse Alive which opened on 23 October 2021. It is a colourful and large accompaniment to the major Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris exhibition.
Much has been written about the later influence on his work from the trip that Henri Matisse undertook by steamer in 1930 to Tahiti and nearby islands in French Polynesia. What is visible in this exhibition is the agency and vibrancy of the work of contemporary women artists who are both responding to Matisse’s art through creating modern versions of traditional female cultural and decorative practices.
While in French Polynesia for two and a half months, Matisse stayed primarily in Papeete on Tahiti and on the Tuamotu islands – drawing, photographing, taking notes, and observing the sea. Like other tourists, he returned home to France with ethnographic souvenirs – including tapa cloths which he used to decorate firstly the walls of his Nice apartment and later his Vence (Chapelle Rosaire) studio and a few appliqued quilts, the tivaevae. Following this visit, his host in Tahiti, Pauline Schyle, sent him gifts of local produce as well as printed cloth including the stylised hibiscus-patterned cloth commonly used to make the pareu.
Matisse claimed that his conscious focus was on the clear light and nature and he professed a disinterest in the local culture during his stay in Tahiti but he brought back to France both artistic techniques and motifs derived from the culture and design. What is particularly interesting is that these are all examples of the art and design of women in Polynesia, where traditionally there was a division between the female textile arts and the male wood carving. Amongst these female artists, designs are regarded as the property of the maker and there is a hierarchy of mastery with older master craftswomen overseeing the passing down of skills to younger women.
From these textile designs, it is this stylised representation of nature – primarily of local plants, butterflies and local birds in the tivaevae – that Matisse applied with cut outs of exotic plants and also the creatures of the lagoon with his Océanie (1946) screenprinted wall hangings. While convalescing after surgery in the 1940s, Matisse started creating cut outs and collages with paper and scissors and what commenced as small pieces eventually came to occupy entire walls as full-size murals, forming the last artworks that he made.
One of the most immediate connections between Matisse’s immense wall hangings and these modern art works in response is size – these works from the South Pacific are all room-sized, the contemporary tapa wall-hangings from Robin White, the ‘video-tapa’ of Angela Tiatia and the more traditional tivaevae quilts from the Pacific Islander community in Matisse Alive as well as the textile walls in Australian Sally Smart’s The Artist’s House.
Aotearoa – New Zealand artist Robin White, who has tribal affiliations with Ngāti Awa, a Māori iwi centred in the Bay of Plenty region, and who lived for many years in Kiribati, has created a monumental series of intricately patterned and decorated barkcloth (ngatu and masi) in collaboration with Tongan artist Ebonie Fifita and the extended Tongan community in Auckland. Perhaps the finest of these representational images is the domestic interior of Vaiola which imagines Matisse reconnecting with his Tahitian host, Pauline Schyle. The windows echo Matisse’s 1936 painting of the view from his hotel in Papeete. The windows open onto ocean horizons and frame the central space for the ritual of morning coffee awaiting on a small table between two chairs. The traditional decorative patterns are present in the segmented geometry of this massive ngatu where Matisse’s shoes are also neatly placed in one corner, a line of cut-out birds flies across the top, and the natural wonders of the South Pacific are captured in some shells and a pineapple.
Above the window flows a poem in Tongan by ‘Akesa Fifita, Ebonie Fifita’s grandmother, who oversaw the ngatu’s (barkcloth) production. The poem begins and ends with the term vaiola (vai for water and ola for light), the poem meditates on change, growth, suffering, acceptance and flow through the image of life-giving waters.
‘Making Vaiola’, a video accompanying the exhibition shows younger members of the Fifita family under the guidance of their elders, participating in the koka’anga, where the lengths of feta’aki (blank barkcloth) are assembled and pasted, and a linear pattern is rubbed onto the upper side. Robin White had prepared the rubbing templates from thin, flexible basket weaving canes cut to exact sizes and stitched to a strong vilene backing cloth. The materials for the feta’aki had been grown, gathered and prepared on the Fifita family’s home island of Vava’u, Tonga and then brought to Auckland.
After the koka’anga, the ngatu is spread out under the sun to dry in preparation for painting with ochre colours made by mixing volcanic earth pigments with liquid mediums derived from a range of plants. The final result is a mixture of detailed decorative pattern and representational highlights. Robin White says that she has “looked at the work of Matisse and allowed his work to inform us and slightly change the Pacific tradition, the traditional ways of dealing with design and pattern and images”.
A plaque carved with Chinese calligraphy that was one of Matisse’s beloved objects in his Nice apartment has also been highlighted with White commissioning her art and calligrapher friend Taeko Ogawa in Hiroshima to produce calligraphy on two pieces of masi that form part of the massive barkcloth To see and to know are not necessarily the same. Reflecting life in lockdown New Zealand, this domestic scene also includes a bottle of hand sanitizer as well as coffee cups, a radio, flowers, birds and furniture.
Sydney artist Angela Tiatia’s ‘digital tapa’ is a video displayed on a wall-sized screen. The Pearl reimagines Matisse’s small bronze Venus in a shell, created in 1930, as a bold, joy-filled and powerful Venus – symbol of harmony, beauty and love. The Greco-Roman Aphrodite-Venus was born in sea foam and emerged from a shell, just as the creator-god Ta aroa was born from a clam shell. However, the clam shell is now made of pink plastic reflecting Tiatia’s contemporary reflections on the intersection of culture, sex, race and colonialism. At the centre of this watery world is a memorial stone from Taputapuatea, an ancient and sacred marae where people would travel across vast flows of ocean to meet, worship and share knowledge. Of Samoan heritage, Tiatia has plans to update her ‘digital tapa’ over time to reflect major events with a further iteration after COVID impacts have passed.
The presence of the Pacific in Matisse’s imagination is further explored with a stunning display of new, and older treasured tivaevae – the Polynesian art of quilting – created by hand by women from the Cook Islander community of South-Western Sydney. Again, we are reminded of the collective nature of the creation of this female art – while each work has a designer, the quilts are painstakingly handsewn and embroidered by a group of women.
The flowers, the plants, the butterflies and the birds of this imagined South Pacific paradise are painstakingly reproduced in these wall-sized quilts of brilliant colour – a clear reminder of vivid palette of Matisse’s later works of cut-out paper.
Each of these artworks is the product of collaboration and, as Robin White has said, “For Pacific Island women, working together is natural, compared to the Western individual approach. For these women, the process of creating something [together] becomes important.”
Anon., 2015. Robin White with Ruha Fifita: Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path, Aratoi: Wairarapa Museum of Art and History. https://www.aratoi.org.nz/news/robin-white-ruha-fifita-ko-e-hala-hangatonu-straight-path-0
Childs, Elizabeth & Klein, John 1995. ‘Oceanic Escapes: Travel, Memory and Decoration in the Art of Henri Matisse’, in Caroline Turner & Roger Benjamin (eds). Matisse Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery.
Grohnert, Sarah 2021. Making ‘Vaiola’ Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFKZhAF_Im8