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Greg Semu’s Battling ‘Noble Savages’

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Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie, gold fibre silk, 350gsm 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage as installed at Two Rooms. Photo by Jennifer French. Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie, gold fibre silk 350gsm 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage Illford galerie, gold fibre silk 350gsm, 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage as installed at Two Rooms. Photo by Jennifer French Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie, gold fibre silk, 350gsm 1000 x 1000mm Edition 2 of 10 ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie gold, fibre silk 350gsm, 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage as installed at Two Rooms. Photo by Jennifer French Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie, gold fibre silk, 350gsm 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007 Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage as installed at Two Rooms. Photo by Jennifer French Greg Semu, Battle of the Noble Savage, Illford galerie, gold fibre silk 350gsm 1000 x 1000mm, ©Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007

Made apparently to satirise the ‘Bonded by Blood' All Blacks haka poster donated to the Musée by the Rugby Union, Semu's project in this context treats ‘tribal' conflict - between pro-government and rebel factions - as a mock allegory for a two team sporting contest. In his formally staged response with carefully chosen actors, brother tragically fights ‘unbonded' brother, as in the English and American civil wars, and the different squabbling French revolutionary factions.

Auckland

 

Greg Semu
Battle of the Noble Savage

 

23 August - 28 September 2013

This exhibition of seven photographic prints by Greg Semu, is a re-presentation of the commissioned images he made in Paris in 2007 while doing a residency at the Musée du Quai Branly, and which later were shown in a lightbox format at City Gallery and in the Asia Pacific Triennial. So now they have finally come to Auckland, Semu’s home town.

Digitally assembled after separately constructing the components based on individual Māori actors, all of whom are adorned with impressive facial moko and tattoos, Battle of the Noble Savage seduces with its colourful military costumes, abundant body decoration, mid-air poses, lush native bush setting, authentic weapons and appropriated compositions. The latter reference not only New Zealand military artists like Gustav von Tempsky, but also historical French figures like Jacques-Louis David.

Made apparently to satirise the ‘Bonded by Blood’ All Blacks haka poster donated to the Musée by the Rugby Union, Semu’s project in this context treats ‘tribal’ conflict - between pro-government and rebel factions - as a mock allegory for a two team sporting contest. (The French worship the All Blacks on a level that is hard to fathom here.) Within this formally staged response with carefully chosen actors, brother tragically fights ‘unbonded’ brother, as in the English and American civil wars, and the different squabbling French revolutionary factions. Semu’s witty quoting of David’s portrait of Napoleon is a clever nod from a Samoan New Zealander to the nation which begat Charles de Brosses, the pioneering early eighteenth century philosopher who was unusually fascinated by this part of the world and who invented the term ‘Polynesia.’

Here is an interesting interview with Semu about the project. Especially fascinating is his mention of some contemporary tattoo designs in his images where Māori and Samoan motifs are combined. Of course there is little realism involved in these compositions, everything is stilted but elegant, rigidly frozen without the chaos of battle. One panicking warrior is so uncertain of how to use a musket he accidentally holds it upside down like a taiaha, but he doesn’t look frightened. That’s the point.

In other words, Semu revels in the artifice of his process: it is a cluster of stacked up codes that entertains those who get the references, its unabashed sensuality drawing his audience in close while - because of his use of ‘unrealistic’ art historical sources - only vaguely sketching out an action-packed narrative. It is entertains by a theatricality that avoids explicit violence, with lots of vivid detail from overlapping Māori ‘languages‘ involving body and facial gesture, without the conventions of what we normally would call ‘emotion’.

To use an expression in popular usage from the late eighties: a forest of signs.

John Hurrell

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