artist residence : Greg Semu

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autoportrait Greg Semu © Greg Semu

The Quai Branly Museum’s first artist’s residency from July15 th – October 15th 2007 invites Greg Semu.

Since its inauguration, the Quai Branly Museum has reserved an important place for contemporary art.

By welcoming the artist Greg Semu for a residency from July 15th to October 15th 2007, the museum confirms its will to be part of the non-western history of art that is currently in the making. A New Zealander artist of Samoan origin, Greg Semu’s séjour will enable visitors to discover a ‘work in progress’ uncapping the creation of many works, but also to encounter the ethereal Maori heritage of the art of tattooing, which is present in this young photographer and visual artist’s unique style.

Greg Semu’s residency will culminate in the creation of an original work: a photographic painting, representing a battle scene and adapted by the artist; this will stand as an ironic counter part to the photograph donated to the Quai Branly Museum by the legendary All Blacks rugby team in June 2007.
In the context of the Culture Scrum event, these two works, which represent two aspects of New Zealand Culture, will be installed in the hall of the museum from September 1st to October 20th 2007, near the entrance in the Jacques Kerchache reading room.

Greg Semu

Greg Semu considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’: he lives between New Zealand (Auckland), the United States and in Europe’s great capital cities, Berlin, London and Paris. Born in 1971 in Western Samoa, Greg Semu was raised in Auckland in a strict Mormon family. To get back to the traditions of his people, a few years ago he suffered the ancestral initiation right of Pe’a: a Polynesian right-of-passage tattoo reserved for Samoan men. He describes this experience as “the clearest way of asserting my cultural identity and pride in my difference”.

Greg Semu entered the photography world in 1990. He photographs life in the traditional Samoan villages, the atypical New York with its industrial buildings and its poor neigbourhoods, and New Zealand fashion. Cultural plurality is at the heart of his artistic creation.

In his work, the artist notably explores the question of religious colonisation of native populations of the Pacific. Another fundamental area of Greg Semu’s work lies in tattooing. Today, Polynesians tattoo themselves, but they no longer know the original significance of these traditional designs. The very act of tattooing then becomes an assertion of identity. The work of Greg Semu presents colonial history in an original form. With hope and dignity, he shows Polynesian people in the process of renaissance, of recreating themselves culturally on the foundations of ethnic diversity. These images by Greg Semu constitute ‘collages’ of contemporary ideas, classic concepts and the encounter of three universes: religious iconography, colonial materialism, and the farming world of Polynesia.

Since his first exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, in New Zealand, his works are exhibited on an international scale and make up part of public and private collections in Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand.

The artistic project of the residency

For the duration of his residency, Greg Semu will work on a main piece that he has chosen to entitle ‘The Battle of the Noble Savages’.

For this project, the artist takes inspiration from the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David: ‘Le Premier Consul Franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint Bernard’ also known as ‘Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass’ or ‘Bonaparte Crossing the Alps’, which he adapts. This equestrian painting represents Napoleon, triumphant, before his victory over the Austrians in his Italian campaign sealed by the battle of Marengo, on June 14th 1800.
A painting tribute to the glory of a ‘noble savage’, an armed and tattooed Samoan warrior during the assault; the work of Greg Semu is an hommage to the people of Tangata Whenua.

For this project, the artist has performed preparatory work in New Zealand: the characters surrounding the figure of the cavalier and the cavalier himself were the subjects of a casting and photographic session of Maori extras.

In Paris, Greg Semu digitalises these images, performs the montage-collage, touch-ups, printing and framing of the definitive work which will find its place opposite the photograph of the All Blacks, in the hall of the Museum.

The battle of the noble savages, by Greg Semu

“My project is a commission from the Musée du quai Branly in response to an image dated 2007 and representing the All Blacks New Zealand rugby team. This image, smooth and reworked by computer, is a group portrait of the team altogether in a tropical forest. The players are fixed in action, and in the fulfilment of their ritual the ‘Haka’: a ceremonial dance linked to war for the Maori people that the All Blacks have appropriated for themselves, and which they perform before each of their matches.

The work that I will attempt to create is inspired by several historical and artistic sources, that I have the intention of adopting, adapting and re-contextualising, in order to create a fictive reconstitution of a battle field. Above all, I’m basing my work on the French painter Jacques Louis David, and his painting: ‘Le Premier Consul Franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint Bernard’ also known as ‘Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass’ or ‘Bonaparte Crossing the Alps’, which represents Napoleon astride a white horse. For the ‘Battle of the noble savages’, this image constitutes a central motif which symbolises the colonial power.

I find other sources in the photographs and paintings of chief Maori warriors, and in particular in the illustrations of British troops during the battles with Maori combatants published in the form of prints in the newspapers that date back to the 19 th century. The compositions of these prints are derived from the painting of David: a conquering hero, on a tamed horse, attacking local warriors. These images were supposed to tell a story in a very succinct fashion and to enable the identification of the key actors of the New-Zealander wars, in which the Maori chiefs would fight either with, or against the colonial forces for possession of their land. […]

By focusing on this iconic image of a conquering European emperor along with the Maori cultural references, I hope to create a powerful photograph that will make people understand that conflict and war are inherent to the history of New Zealand and that will enable Maori people to be recognised as a people of warrior culture. The New Zealand wars of the 19 th century are significant on a historic scale, insofar as they took place at the same time as the revolutionary conflicts in Europe and in the Americas. […]

The photograph that I imagine implies a certain number of Maori actors, that each have the facial tattoo, or ‘Moko’, that is traditional in Maori culture. The ‘Moko’ is the mark of a warrior status, that is won following combat and may only be worn by the best combatants. It is an ‘accumulative’ tattoo that grows and spreads across the whole face with each battle fought. According to the custom, the head of the loser served as the victor’s war trophy.

In the context of my work, the tattoo is worn by all of the combatants in reference to the influence of the ‘Divide and conquer’ political strategy: to create situations of division, that push a brother against another. In a certain way, this work is as a mirror opposite the unity and uniformity of the All Black’s promotional image– but it is also intrinsic to it, by the reference to New-Zealand’s history of war.

The Battle of the Noble Savages illustrates the shock between two cultures: the colonial and professional soldiers, against indigenous belligerent cultures. May the best tribe win!”

Greg Semu, June 2007