artist residence : Greg Semu

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autoportrait Greg Semu © Greg Semu

The quai Branly Museum invites Greg Semu for its first artist’s residency from 15th July – 15th October 2007

Ever since its inauguration, the quai Branly Museum has placed an important focus on contemporary art.

By welcoming the artist Greg Semu into residency from 15th July to 15th October 2007, the museum confirms its desire to participate in the non-western creation of the history of art. A New Zealand artist of Samoan origin, Greg Semu’s séjour will enable visitors to discover a ‘work in progress’ that will lead to the creation of many works. It will also give visitors the opportunity 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 counterpart 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 museum's hall from 1st September to 20th October 2007, near the entrance to 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 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. A few years ago, he decided to return to his people's traditions by enduring 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 world of photography in 1990. He photographs life in traditional Samoan villages as well as New York's atypical physionomy - 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 the religious colonisation of Pacific's native populations. 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. It is thus the act of tattooing in itself that 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 a renaissance phase, culturally recreating themselves 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 Polynesia's farming world.

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 14th June 1800.
A painted tribute to the glory of the ‘noble savage’, an armed and tattooed Samoan warrior during the assault, the work of Greg Semu pays homage to the people of Tangata Whenua.

For this project, the artist undertook preparatory work in New Zealand: he carried out a casting and photo shoot of Maori extras to help him organise both the cavalier and the characters surrounding him in the final work.

In Paris, Greg Semu is working on digitalising these images, creating the montage-collage, touching up the images and printing and framing the definitive work which will find its place opposite the photograph of the All Blacks, in the museum's hall.

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 dating to 2007 and representing the All Blacks New Zealand rugby team. This image, smooth and reworked by computer, is a group portrait of the team together in a tropical forest. The players are fixed in action and in the fulfilment of their ritual the ‘Haka’: a Maori ceremonial war dance which 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 reconstruction of a battle field. Above all, I shall base 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 colonial power.

I have found other sources in photographs and paintings that depict chief Maori warriors and in particular in the illustrations of British troops during the battles with Maori fighters, published in the form of prints in the newspapers dating back to the 19th century. The compositions of these prints are derived from David's painting: 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 identify 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 New Zealand's history and that will enable the Maori to be recognised as members of a warrior culture. The New Zealand wars of the 19th 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 am working towards implies a certain number of Maori actors, each wearing the traditional Maori ‘Moko’ facial tattoo. The ‘Moko’ is the mark of a warrior and is won by the best fighters following a combat. It is an ‘accumulative’ tattoo that grows and spreads across the whole face with each battle fought. According to custom, the head of the vanquished 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 one brother against another. In a certain way, this work is like a mirror in opposition to the unity and uniformity of the All Black’s promotional image – but it is also intrinsic to this unity and uniformity, by reference to New-Zealand’s war history.

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