Mark Harvey – 3 September, 2013
For many, his perception of Aotearoa may be hard to take - what would he know about the complexities of Aotearoa, we might ask? After all, besides spending hardly any time here, Pope.L's set also looks like something out of small town America, with all the sensationalism of a bad Hollywood film - and if you gave the actors American accents one might have difficulty seeing it having a deep discourse with this place.
The Long White Cloud
3 August - 20 October 2013
Wiiliam Pope.L’s The Long White Cloud is a work that appears to have polarized many viewers with its complex cultural-political strategies.
It is what some would call a theatrical performance installation - what might be regarded as a black-box theatre show in a gallery - the result of a brave curatorial endeavor of Bruce Phillips and Te Tuhi in the quest of exploring possibilities in cultural-political performance in art; in this case a theatrical performance that sits more freely in a gallery than in a conventional theatre.
Pope.L, an Afro American artist, is well known internationally for his performance works that engage with conditions of oppressive colonization by the white man in America. Of particular note is his series of crawling works where he dressed as Superman (Lepecki, 2006), and through performances questioned the globalist integrity of Obama at the peak of Obamaphoria, long before others.
In The Long White Cloud he’s taken on the challenge of getting a crash course in Aotearoa’s race relations, history and colonization, spending no more than a week in person here to make a reflection on this at Te Tuhi. This has resulted in both a live performance and a video of the live performance within the installation.
It begins with spectators being sandwiched into the seating space in what appears to be a black box theatre set-up, where we see a young male actor (Samuel Christopher) carrying out a macabre scenario where he has tied his mother (portrayed by Aruna Po-Ching) permanently to her bed. It rings of all those recent stories in America and Europe of sexual predators kidnapping women for years on end.
Christopher and Po-Ching’s acting appears to be deliberately bad, being theatrical at a mimetic level. It is as though Pope.L is poking fun at the culturally colonizing apparatus that the black-box theatre has often been - a bastion of Shakespeare, the Queen’s English and all things conventionally white and normative. Soon in we are introduced to another actor (Stephen Bain): both he and Po-Ching assume more than one role, which again plays up the artifice of the object-focused conventional theatre.
It’s interesting that Bain, perhaps one of Aotearoa’s most skilled actors, is the only one that is convincing in his role. His key character is a believable molesting self-loathing father figure. Perhaps his sense of realism is a kind of cultural barometer of how Pope.L perceives the history of colonization in Aotearoa? That is, despite the fact we like to say we are good at race relations, we’re not all that good in reality. This, Bain as the father, shows.
This work is a conceptual risk that would make even the most positivist anthropologist balk. It is rich in metaphor and direct references to this land: from the Treaty and the white mounds of Papatūānuku’s breasts formed by sugar piles, to the metaphors of raping Maori and the land; or the ‘NZ’ painted on Bain’s chest - reminiscent of rednecks who might vote for the political right or Winston Peters - and the sickly sweet smell the sugar makes as it is pumped through a chute, reminiscent of how we often try to sweeten over things to do with cultural relations.
Pope.L’s impression is that white men as symbolized by Bain’s role have enslaved this land, seducing it with too much sweetness, and molesting those born out of colonization (like the son) to become fake, fearful and greedy. Perhaps it could sum up the current dominant political discourse in our government?
There is a degree of autobiography in this work. Sugar is often associated with black slavery in the Caribbean, something Pope.L traces his own lineage to. The characters are ones that he has seen. The sugar represents sustenance, reminiscent of the struggles of Pope.L’s childhood with poverty I am told.
For many, his perception of Aotearoa may be hard to take - what would he know about the complexities of Aotearoa, we might ask? After all, besides spending hardly any time here, Pope.L’s set also looks like something out of small town America, with all the sensationalism of a bad Hollywood film - and if you gave the actors American accents one might have difficulty seeing it having a deep discourse with this place. Is this just another American internationalist and colonizing reading of us here in Aotearoa? This could be compounded when we learn in the question and answer session after the performance that Po-Ching is Samoan, not Maori, despite playing a Maori in both her roles.
But Pope.L has had too much experience tugging away at intercultural politics to leave it on this level. It is this very point - to play with our sense of collective being - that he’s engaging with here. He plays devil’s advocate with his presentation of himself as a misappropriating colonizer. This is because here he is telling us this is what it’s like for him as a black American - constantly, everyday - just as he tells us in many of his other works.
We may position ourselves as morally superior to the institutionalized racism of America but as Slavoj Zizek (1989) notes, we are all essentially racist, and no matter what we say in this country, we still can’t escape its dynamics and related marginalizing consequences no matter how hard we have tried to deal with it. This only becomes more noticeable when someone that’s usually positioned as ‘other’, in this case Pope.L, makes a colonizing comment about our histories in Aotearoa - that many of us (Pakeha especially) are just as complicit to racism and colonization as Americans.
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