Wednesday, August 20, 2014

STEVIE FIELDSEND / UMBRA: Revelations of malu as ancestral imprint

Stevie Fieldsend_Umbra series_2014_wood, glass, metal, fringe_dimensions variable.

Extract from Stevie Fieldsend's MFA thesis 2014: UMBRA: Revelations of malu as ancestral imprint

Stevie Fieldsend wrote the thesis in association with developing the exhibition UMBRA which is currently showing at Artereal  Gallery from 6-30 August 2014.

Chapter 4 - Process/Studio: Emotional and Cultural Perceptions of Life and Death, Family and Ritual.

This chapter describes the ritual of receiving my malu in Samoa in 2014 as well as aspects of my studio practice and how these two processes intersect and create a visual interpretation in my final MFA installation. It also briefly outlines the background of my journey to Samoa to provide a context to the project.  It describes a body of work made prior to travelling to Samoa and how that was a preparation for undergoing the tatau. This work holds within it emotional and cultural perceptions of life and death, family and ritual.

It will show how the acquisition of malu and my imaginative response can be contained by the Pacific concept ‘Va as described by Albert Wendt:
Important to the Samoan view of reality is the concept of Va or Wa in Maori and Japanese. Va is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things.  The meanings change as the relationships/contexts change.  (We knew a little about semiotics before Saussure came along!)  A well-known Samoan expression is Ia teu le va. Cherish/nurse/care for the Va, the relationships. This is crucial in communal cultures that value group unity, more than individualism: who perceive the individual person/creature/thing in terms of group, in terms of va, relationships.[1] 
In many ways my project is more about life than ‘artper se, much like the tufugas perspective of his tatauing being a way of life. Its primary purpose was to give impetus to establish connections with my Samoan heritage and reclaim my Samoan-ness – a journey of reconciliation. I had in the past created a sealed container of my own narrow perceptions regarding tatau/malu as I avoided contact with any Samoans, both  family or fellow artists.  Both studio practice and my research are integral in transforming the woundedness and grief from a number of past situations: the exclusion from my father’s life and then his will (this exile is also a separation from Samoan culture) and the unsettledness towards my Samoan relatives who are the executors of that will - into a space of reparation and meaningful connection to family on both sides. This has resulted in a literal expression of Ia teu le va.  In exploring the process and meaning of tatau/malu I look at how those meanings can be used in contemporary artistic expression.

I began this MFA project with the intention of going to Samoa early in second year, however when the time came I knew that was not possible emotionally or financially. So I safely researched from afar through books, exhibitions and the internet. I made work referencing Sia Figiel’s novel they who do not grieve about a Samoan grandmother with an unfinished malu –pea muku (unfinished tatau) that caused perpetual shame passed from generations to generation, mother to daughter.[2] I thought about the weight, shape and colour of shame and from this book and other sources a substantial body of work was created; Love-Stretch, Long-Stretch, Solve et Coagula and Descent.

 Love Stretch, exhibited at Roslyn Oxley Gallery in 2012 explores the complex nature of the maternal relationship in a series of foetal-like blown glass forms suspended within black skin-thin sheer pantyhose from inverted metal hooks. The tensions that play between mother and child, love, connectedness and separation are the essence of this installation. The following series of questions indicate more closely my thoughts at the time and now in retrospect I see how this and the next work is laying the foundations for reconnecting with Samoan culture and receiving the malu - that which was missing.

Two important occasions initiated a process of va/teu la va thereby gradually changing my project. The first of these was an entry of work, Solve et Coagula about the death of my Samoan father, at Rookwood Cemetery Sculpture Award (a Sydney exhibition that asks artists to respond to death, history and remembrance) in October 2013. Slumps of thick-shaped, biomorphic, molten glass seeped over and inside a series of charred, truncated blackened wood forms. The hot glass itself had assumed and picked up an imprint memory of the wood grain, and when separated and cooled is laid back down over the standing forms.  Solve et Coagula is an alchemical term and methodology used to describe the transformation of base metals into gold. It literally means dissolve and bind or in terms of my work that something must be broken down, dissolved before it can then be reconstructed. It also intimates that the situation must be analysed before taking the useful components to build a new direction.  Making work about my late father has given me the opportunity to connect with him and have a new type of relationship. I see Solve et Coagula as a gift from him and a memorial to him that has and continues to open many lines of communication for my art practice.
When I received the Rookwood Cemetery Sculpture Award for this work it seemed to mark a major transition as well as providing the means to pay for travel expenses.  I knew it was time to visit my father’s resting place in Samoa. 

Secondly, my meeting with Leo Tanoi, as I spoke about in Chapter 2, ignited a significant shift for my MFA project. In talking with Tanoi, the first Samoan arts professional I had actually spoken with, broke a long self-imposed isolation from interacting with the Samoan community and the larger world of Pacific art practice. We talked about what it is to be a Samoan in its many diverse forms today, attaining the malu and making artwork in a Pacific diaspora context. In this conversation it was as if he gave me permission to claim my Samoan identity. This in turn motivated me to learn more about Samoa and to allow myself to acquire the malu. It also seemed to provide the initiative to make the following works in 2014, just before I journeyed to Samoa.

 In making the small stone forms, rather like fossils for Long-Stretch I inserted and trapped soot inside of molten glass, that then expands inside of hot glass and creates pockets of air - and when cooled the soot remains in its original dusty form. (The ancient malu inks used candle-nut soot.)

The combination of materials: heavy translucent stones tautly suspended and straining downwards within sheer black pantyhose is ambiguous: feminine yet ballsy. They seem to be hanging about with nothing to do, inert and at the same time waiting and alert. Waiting for the guiding marks to be made apparent. In there for the long stretch. The idea is implicit that we are born with an internal ancestral imprint, which emerges externally on the body.

Exhibited alongside Long-Stretch was Descent, made from a great mass of synthetic wool threads, almost a coagulation of bluish and reddish stuff, found at Reverse Garbage. It looked like a nervous system that had been stripped out of the body. Like one of Psyche’s tasks I had to unscramble these great bundles into long skeins. I needed to restore order, to find each thread. This 70 hour performance carried out with attendant friends was as much part of the work as the finished piece. I had selected the manhole site, 7 metres high in SCA gallery ceiling to hang this great woollen ancestral lineage.  It fell in an avalanche of long tendrils into a convoluted heap down to the ground. In the middle of the blue-grey mass was a central core of red iron oxide.

Immediately after installing this work, I travelled to New Zealand (my birth country), and Samoa.

My journey to Samoa in March 2014, three months prior to the conclusion of this project marked a profound transformation both personally and creatively. As soon as I arrived I went to see my Father’s grave on our ancestral land’s burial site, Ululoa, for the first time since he died over nine years ago.

Prior to this visit I had a discussion with my cousins wife and her daughter who both have a malu, about acquiring the malu in Sydney rather than Samoa, they then persuaded me to get it whilst in Samoa. My initial reasons for wanting the malu were quite instinctual – to do with belonging, identity, to connect with my forebears and also to obtain the psychological and spiritual protection of the malu. This was something I had been contemplating for a few years, as I had previously been given permission  to do so by my Samoan relatives.

Here I will describe the acquisition of malu in detail: the Tufuga tatatau, Sua Peter Suluape instructed me to bring 10 yards of pure cotton lavalava (sarong), one dozen eggs, turmeric powder and coconut oil. He stipulated the strict protocols that must be adhered to when receiving the malu. The recipient must not enter a fale (house) without a lava lava on - I wore my Grandmother’s lava lava for the malu – for protection and connection. People who want to watch must come inside the fale and sit down. They must not stand behind tufuga whilst he is tatauing.  Each person receiving the tatau must have a partner who is also getting the tatau on same day to share the pain. Strict protocols after acquiring the malu are set out as follows; after the malu is completed recipients must be accompanied at all times, day and night, for two days to protect the new malu and in order to ward off bad spirits/energy from entering a healing malu. Recipients must sleep on a mat on the floor for two nights next to a female guardian. They must not reveal malu unless dancing the traditional Samoan dance – siva or taulauga or flaunt or show top band of malu. I have discussed this last aspect and my challenge to it in Chapter 2.

The tatau tool kit consists of a set of ‘au (tattoo combs), a sausau (wooden mallet) and Suluape black – tatau ink. The process takes three hours and besides the tufuga tatatau Sua Peter Suluape, two skin stretchers/assistants were present. There is no discussion prior, during or after regarding the design. It is primarily the tufugas domain to decide what motifs he bestows on the recipient, it is at once a gift and a honorary artwork that is shared between tufuga and recipient for a lifetime. However it is important to remember that the motifs themselves belong to tufuga and his family. He started the tatau with the bottom band on the back of my knee with an au, his assistants stretched my skin, wiped off the blood along with excess ink and fanned the flies away. After he finished with the bottom band at back of knee he worked his way up to the top band at back of my upper thigh, then began the process again on each side of leg and then on front of leg, finishing with eight neat symmetrical columns on each leg that are bordered with a band at each end.

An excerpt from my diary gives an accurate description of the process: the first leg went well in terms of pain, I was self-conscious but chatting and smiling with my family who were sitting around me. The second leg was an entirely different experience – a world of pain – gone was the self-consciousness, I didnt care what anyone thought at this point, just trying to cope with the pain and not move or tense a muscle, praying to my dad and nana to help me get through it. My cousins wife laughingly told me I looked like I was in labour – which would best describe the intensity of such agony. This is where family comes fully into the picture offering words of comfort and support, feeding me and fanning me.  In the last half-hour my body went into shock, the tufuga told my cousin to get me a coke, it was at this point the tufuga said to me ‘hang in therewhich was the only thing he said to me in the entire process apart from telling me where to position my legs. I really needed to hear that and one of his helpers stroked the bottom of my foot for a couple of seconds which went a long way.  I felt as if I was losing consciousness and then I heard my family say this is the last line to go – best thing Id heard ever!

At the conclusion of the tatauing process my niece took me into a small hut off to the side of the fale, she washed me down and showed me how to massage the ink into my skin. I was then led back into the fale where the tufuga anointed me with a mixture of coconut oil and turmeric powder, he rubbed the paste into my arms and legs for healing. Immediately afterwards he cracked open an egg and ate the yolk whilst he let the white of it run on to my scalp symbolising my rebirth into a new life as a Samoan woman. At that point Suluape said a prayer and I paid him for the malu. For the next two days and nights I slept on a woven mat on the floor with my niece next to me.

The collaborative connection between Sulu’ape and myself  – the ‘va’ /teu la va is cemented by the performance of bestowing a malu on my body and for the rest of my life is a powerful and comprehensive means of relationship -it aligns me not just to him from that given moment but with both our ancestral lineages as well as with the Samoan community, my family on both sides and all future and past relational engagements. 
Once again from my diary: Receiving the malu is a shared experience within the family… you must have a partner getting a malu or pea on the same day to share the pain, I was paired with a man getting a pea. Both my Samoan family and the tufugas family were present and I could see his wife, baby and father over the far side of the fale as well as their friends coming and going, hanging out making tatauing tools as well as tourists coming in to watch. It was a normal family affair with everyone sharing in on the occasion, helping out, being supportive and following the strict formalities of the ceremony where everyone has their place and is respectful of traditional and present day protocols, engaging with each other accordingly. There is no ‘Ior ‘onein Samoan culture, everything is shared.

This is why Wendt connects the concept of Va/ teu la va to the art of tatau/malu:
So tatauing is part of everything else that is the people, the aiga, the village, the community, the environment, the atua, the cosmos…….. other art forms and the future because a tatau or a malu is for the rest of your life and when you die your children will inherit its reputation and stories, your stories, stories about you and your relationships.[3]

I will now describe how my final work responds and interacts in an energetic dialogue with the ritual and meanings of malu. I approach my work in an intuitive way where there is an embryonic idea that insistently plays within my mind.  Donald Brook, an Australian art theorist has said that intuition is the result of prolonged tuition. Those almost unconscious inklings and glimmerings informed by years of studio practice lead to play/experimentation with materials and techniques alongside researching - reading, conversation, exhibitions and international travel. There is a conversation between myself and the work, where we take turns in leading, forming, re-forming and extending the idea.  The materials themselves have their own instructions, their own ideas. I also recognise that certain energies of force, endurance, punishment, obsession and discernment play themselves out- in this respect both the making of my work, the work itself and receiving the malu has alliances with performance art. In my studio practice there is an element, rather like undergoing the gruelling tatau process, of testing the limits, undergoing physical and psychological confrontations with materials and ideas.
Glass-blowing can be seen as analogous to the ritual of tatau as well as Va in that it is a collaborative event, it is repetitive and is a performance of skill and bravura. Both take physical strength and psychological stamina. In making my work I need a partner who I then assist to make their work. An atmosphere of respect, collaboration and trust is necessary. In taking hold of the molten material and working with it I come to know intimately- its properties, its strengths and weaknesses as well as its dangers and loveliness.  It is a seductive material. Much has been written of the alchemical processes in working with glass - the transformation of  “base” matter into something precious. This transformative process is duplicated when I carve and sand the tree trunks found in Kurrajong at the base of the Blue Mountains. It is an enjoyable process of attending to every little dip, bump, grain - it is personal and loving. It can also be brutal with the use of chainsaws, grinders, chisels, fumigation and blowtorches. The trunks are scarred all over with a solid black tattoo. The forms themselves undergo an endurance test. Like the tatau it grounds me in my materiality, in my body.  The work and the body are one.

As a bi-racial and bi-cultural woman I lead a double life, or a life in between, that
liminal space, an ambiguous state (that occurs in the middle of rituals) where the old is disintegrating and the new is being formed. That doubling is echoed again and again from the origins of the conjoined twins, to the shared ritual of tatau, to the symmetry of each identical patterned malu-ed leg, to the design that is at once beneath skin yet seen on surface. As Juniper Ellis writer of Tattooing the World eloquently writes in reference to Samoan tatau/malu:

Tattoo can thus serve as both a transmission of and a challenge to differing forms of authority, in a double movement that encompasses the status of the designs; at once more than skin deep and marking the skin as a surface, the patterns remain both inside and outside the body. The figures by extension make visible subjectification, by which subjects claim and are claimed by the processes that reproduce culture. The basic schema of tattooing is thus definable as the exteriorisation of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorisation of the exterior.[4]

The final installation - a ceremonial space prepared for visitors/participants - consists of multiple totemic forms referencing the female body but indicating a super-human aspect with their elevated heights. The central sculpture is a monument to the female atua (spirit/goddesses) Taema and Tiliafaiga – the Siamese twins who brought the art of tatauing to Samoa. Protectively flanked by eight forms, overflowing and shaded with delicate inky blue-fringing they are evocative of ritualistic head dresses used for celebrating malu.  They also conjure upside-down women with gowns fallen down revealing themselves, displaying their upper legs. There is still a shadow of old pains, a disembodiment and disassociation but it is held in check with a bit of cheekiness - some frivolity and lightness. These particular sculptures mark a significant point of departure from earlier work in their materiality, colour and weight. The blown, light, coloured glass replaces the solid, clear, bulky, glass… the weighty, hard, charred, wooden bodies are now sinuous, drifting with layers of coloured threads however the female bodily forms remain. They are held high and able to move. The accompanying video works and photographs (documenting aspects of the project) also flow through the space revealing real-life bodies. The endurance tests have been completed and new forms are revealed. These reveal the motifs and the essence of malu – my family.

[1] Albert Wendt, Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body. Originally published in Span 42-43 (April-October 1996): 15-29. (Accessed September 15, 2013)
[2] Sia Figiel, They who do not grieve. (Random House Australia Pty Ltd, 2000)
[3] Albert Wendt, Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body. Originally published in Span 42-43 (April-October 1996): 15-29. (Accessed September 15, 2013)
[4] Juniper Ellis, “Pacific Designs in Print & Skin: Tattooing The World” In Tatau and Malu, (Columbia University Press, 2008), 37.

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