I like my art to be like my culture, so that it has some meaning and something for the people to value in the future. It is not easy to do, but that’s what I felt I wanted to do.
In this Cultural Icons episode, renowned Samoan New Zealand artist Fatu Feu’u is interviewed by poet and author Denys Trussell. Fatu is a key figure in contemporary art in the Pacific, known for his painting, printmaking and sculpture, and as a founding member of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust.
Tracing his beginnings to the village of Poutasi, Samoa, Fatu had wanted to be an artist from an early age. He migrated to New Zealand in 1966, and describes how art is viewed differently by the two countries: the beautifully made, functional canoes and houses are seen as art in Samoa, whilst in New Zealand, art is treated as something extra special not to be touched.
Fatu worked as a designer and colour advisor for textile and car companies, and became friends with a number of artists such as his mentors Tony Fomison, Pat Hanly and Philip Clairmont, who had a profound impact on his artistic development. He subsequently became a full time artist in the ‘80s.
His work synthesises a range of influences and techniques; imagery drawn from his Samoan heritage such as tatau (tattoo) and tapa (bark cloth) as well as other Pacific and European aspects, which he combines with differing materials like canvas, paint, wood and even marble. Fatu’s paintings are rich in motifs and striking colour, and recently he has incorporated text into his works, drawing from poems and songs in Samoan or English. He has also created sculptures, learning from his friend Llew Summers, and his fascination with ancient Lapita pottery has led to collaborative pieces with Barry Brickell.
Fatu talks about the difficulties he encountered when he first started out as an artist, as there were few Pacific artists exhibiting. Along with friends he formed the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust in 1988, a supportive organisation for Pacific artists providing mentoring, workshops and more. He divides his time between New Zealand and Samoa, and desires to see greater support to help nurture and develop young artists in Samoa.
This episode is full of wonderful anecdotes, such as when he slipped out of the 2005 Wallace Art Awards early, unaware that he was later announced the winner; his pride in being included in Bottled Ocean (1994) the first survey exhibition of Pacific art in New Zealand curated by Jim Vivieaere; and his admiration for Pablo Picasso, who he believes to be the greatest painter of the last one hundred years. What impresses in this interview is Fatu’s passion for and knowledge of art, and his grateful, humble attitude about his experiences and his role as a leader in contemporary art in the Pacific.