20 October - 8 November
By Billie Lythberg
All is Ola.
All is Life.
Albert Wendt, Ola (1991).
If artists and writers are, as Fatu Feu‘u says, keepers of history and custodians of old stories yearning to be told anew, then he is uniquely qualified for this responsibility. He is the celebrated ‘Father of contemporary Pacific arts’ in Aotearoa and the bearer of two Samoan matai titles: the ali‘i title of Lesa, given by his mother’s family, of Sa‘anapu, and the tulafale title of Si‘a, conferred by his father’s family, of Poutasi.[i]
[i] Pereira, F. (2004). Tala Lasi Samoa. Fatu Feu‘u, Painter of Tales. Art New Zealand 111, Winter 2004. https://www.art-newzealand.com/Issue111/fatu.htm
The ali‘i or ‘sacred chief’ title acknowledges genealogical links to the gods, endowing Feu‘u with authority and responsibility for his family and their resources. The secular tulafale ‘orator’ title, bestowed upon those who may advise and give voice to the ali‘i, recognises his knowing and rearticulating of Samoan histories and traditions, and the gafa genealogies that bind people and the world together. In 2001, Feu‘u also became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (O.N.Z.M.) for services to art. Brought together in one body, these acknowledgements and modes of being describe the relational responsibilities and understandings Feu‘u brings to bear on lives lived in both Samoa and Aotearoa—with all their ensuing obligations—and his world-renowned practice as an artist, educator and storyteller.
Working since the 1980s across media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and stained and etched glass, Feu‘u’s bold and inimitable style has been anchored not only in recurring motifs and compositional structures but also fa‘a Samoa—‘the Samoan way’—and the many socio-cultural conventions and ideals it holds in balance. Among these, ola. It could be a poem, this three-lettered word, so sonorous in pronunciation and generous in application.
Ola: life, to live;
to recover, to get well;
to be well; to be prosperous;
to be delivered of a child; to be delivered from punishment;
to end a war and conclude a peace;
the first bonito caught in a new canoe;
a peace-offering; an exclamation—“Wonderful!”[ii]
[ii] Thanks to Karlo Mila and Mana Moana for sharing these insights into the concept of ola.
Ola is the driving force for life, an ethos of connection to ancestors who took only what they needed; to generations not yet born; to rainforests, rivers and oceans; to ourselves and to each other. Both a state and ethic of care and wellbeing, Feu‘u has mobilised ola in works made in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, towards protection of the Kermadec Islands, in his protests against driftnet fishing and nuclear testing, and in his personal recovery of self and self-esteem—inseparable from his family and home village—following the 2009 tsunami that devastated Samoa.
OLA (2020) is Poutasi Village in Falealili, the rainforest behind his family’s property, and the life-sustaining resilience of ufi yams when other crops fail. OLA is The Pinnacles near his home in Coromandel, Feu‘u’s children born in Aotearoa, different ways of being in, from, and thinking about land. It’s simple acts of survival and sustenance bound up with complex needs—to be respected and supported. It’s familial, as endearing as a grandmother’s message and enduring as the ancestors. It’s one hundred shades of green, painting the poems of people and place, past, present and future.
If ola is about connection, OLA (2020) also evokes a contronym. Imagined aerial views recall the divisions and overlaps of siapo barkcloths and tatau upon skin; delineated territories cleaving together as they cleave apart. This tension extends to depictions of ancestral masks, drawn from and elaborating dentate-stamped Lapita pottery, which have become a signature of sorts in Feu‘u’s work, a reminder of the omnipresence of aitu (spirits) and ancestors. Here, some filter or focus a European gaze, a personal and privileged view into fa‘a Samoa, an invitation into the frame. As Samoan scholars Albert Wendt and Albert Refiti have reminded us, the space between us—vā—is simultaneously the potential for connection or rupture. Here are real and imagined boundaries, semi-permanent and semi-permeable, the possibility of balance, symmetry and reciprocity; the potential for ifoga, reconciliation or rebuilding.
Painted in the time of Covid-19—an invisible, indiscriminatory foe—these reminders of division and connection have an added poignancy and urgency. Today’s acts of respect for one another are pulling a tighter focus on the local, slowing us down, keeping us in place and in pace with the lands and seas where we live, reminding us to tend to the space between and around us, to live and be well.
Here, then, are new conditions for Ola:
for Fa‘a ola: to make grow;
for Olaola: to flourish;
for Ola‘a: a lifetime.