02 Apr 2024  |  Annika Sung

Sāmoan Potraits: An exhibition celebrating change and continuity

Last year I was very fortunate to have been invited to curate the exhibition Then and There, Here and Now: Samoan Portraits, which opened on 14 September 2023 at The New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata (Wellington, New Zealand). The show was inspired by my work on the research project Sāmoan Multiplicities: Experiences of Sāmoanness, a collaboration between the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. Essentially, Sāmoan Multiplicities suggests that even though contemporary Sāmoan identities have been spatially and temporally distributed, a sense of Sāmoanness and strong Sāmoan values always remain intact. Similar sentiments are expressed in the Sāmoan proverb “E sui fainga ae tumau faavae” (Practices may change but the foundations remain), which helped to further shape the concept of the exhibition.

The title of the exhibition. The font is Churchward Samoa™, designed by Sāmoan graphic designer and typographer Joseph Churchward (1932-2013). Translation by Taule’ale’ausumai Sa’u Emo Tauave (National University of Samoa).

In order to engage with these ideas of continuity and change, we decided to focus on the medium of photography. Through our Sāmoan Multiplicities research into Te Papa’s online Sāmoa collections, we had discovered that there was an overwhelming demand for historical photographs from users within New Zealand, Sāmoa, and other parts of the world. Photographs were primarily accessed and downloaded for private, genealogical research. But while these historical photographs had been taken by European (and in this case, New Zealand) photographers who had travelled to Sāmoa during the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, we wondered how they would compare to photographs taken by Sāmoan artists living in Aotearoa New Zealand today. This, in combination with the proverb, led to the final exhibition design: historical and contemporary photographs shown side by side, to demonstrate that Sāmoanness has undergone past and present transformations, but while some things change, others stay the same. And sometimes, it also just depends on who is behind the lens.

The exhibition was arranged into six thematic groups: dress, tatau, gender, the home, the community, and nature. Each of these groups come with their own set of values that are connected in the Sāmoan , or relational space (see the writings of Albert Wendt or Melani Anae).[i] The narrative thus begins with the more personal, or individual markers of identity, leading to this idea of a communal identity, which is an integral part of Sāmoan culture and the reciprocal relationships of the .

Installation view, Then and There, Here and Now: Samoan Portraits, 14 Sept - 10 Dec 2023, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata. Artists included in the show are Thomas Andrew, Alfred James Tattersall, Glenn Jowitt, Mark Adams, Yuki Kihara, Greg Semu, Edith Amituanai, and Genevieve Pini.

Let’s consider one of these groups in more detail. In the Tatau section, there were photographs from three different decades: Thomas Andrew’s from the 1890s, Mark Adams’ from the 1970s, and Genevieve Pini’s from the early 2000s. Therefore, at a glance, we can see that the practice of tatau (Sāmoan tattooing) has continued, even if the location or tools or the aesthetics of the tattoos themselves have changed. One of my favourite pieces in the show is Fa’amalu in the centre of this group (image below), but not just because of its lusciously large size. The woman is proudly showing off her malu (or female tattoo), and her pose almost mirrors that of the man in Andrew’s iconic photograph. But while that one is staged in a studio with a specific, European audience in mind, Pini’s is a spontaneous shot taken in an Auckland setting in Otara, at the house where she herself got her malu. I particularly appreciated that, in an interview, Pini remarked that her malu essentially represents love, and that it was a way to connect her past to her present, and Sāmoa to Otara.[ii]

Installation view, Then and There, Here and Now: Samoan Portraits, 14 Sept - 10 Dec 2023, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata.

Acknowledging the limitations of my own heritage, language and knowledge, I received a lot of advice and support from other people, and would like to acknowledge just some of them here: Jeanine Parkinson (New Zealand Portrait Gallery), Becky Beans (New Zealand Portrait Gallery), Togialelei Safua Akeli Amaama (Te Papa), Roger Rassmussen (Te Papa), Athol McCredie (Te Papa), Taule’ale’ausumai Sa’u Emo Tauave (National University of Samoa), Etanah Lalau-Talapā (Hutt City Council), and all the wonderful artists who have shown such great enthusiasm for the show and shared some of their thoughts and feelings with me.


[i] See, for example: Melani Anae. 2016. ‘Teu Le Va: Samoan relational ethics.’ Knowledge Cultures 4(3): 117-122 and Albert Wendt. 1996. ‘Tatauing the post-colonial body.’ Span 42-43: 15-29.

[ii] See pimpiknows.com.