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Powerful photographs of Sāmoan tattooing on show at Te Papa

News: 16 October 2019

An exhibition opening in Te Papa’s Toi Art in November gives an intimate insight into the unique cultural practice of Sāmoan tattooing.

Tatau: Sāmoan Tattooing and Photography presents the work of four photographers who have documented Sāmoan tattooing over the past 40 years, in New Zealand, Sāmoa, the United States and Europe.

Works by Mark Adams, Greg Semu, John Agcaoili and Angela Tiatia portray the globalisation of tatau and the varied contexts and interpretations of Sāmoan tattooing.

Mark Adams,1982. Farwood Drive, Henderson, west Auckland. Tattooing Uli. Tufuga tatatau: Su'a Tavui Pasina Iosefo Ah Ken, image courtesy of the artist. Te Papa.

From intimate domestic scenes in suburban garages to street photography, and in relation to themes of religious iconography and female sexuality, the exhibition presents diverse perspectives on tatau.

The exhibition follows the multi-award-winning 2018 book Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing published by Te Papa Press, and co-authored by Te Papa’s Sean Mallon and French anthropologist Sebastien Galliot.

In addition to over 50 photographs, Tatau: Sāmoan Tattooing and Photography will include a small selection of indigenous Sāmoan tattooing tools. The use of the tools are a distinctive part of Sāmoan tattooing, and offer a tangible connection to the past and to the age-old processes of making tatau.

Sean Mallon, Senior Curator, Pacific Cultures says this exhibition will reflect on how powerful and distinctive tatau is within society.

“Tatau gives Sāmoans a rich resource to pin their sense of cultural identity to. Tatau: Sāmoan Tattooing and Photography highlights how four photographers have used tatau as a medium to explore themes such as place, identity and colonial history.”

Renowned photographer Mark Adams has documented Sāmoan tattooing in New Zealand since the late 1970’s. His connections with his subjects are displayed through the intimate domestic settings within his photographs. Adam’s images portray tatau in suburban New Zealand; within living rooms and garages, on bloodstained cushions and mats.

Greg Semu, a New Zealand born Sāmoan photographer has created striking self-portraits documenting his 25 year journey as a tataued man. Beginning as a street photographer capturing the lives of the growing Polynesian community in Auckland, Semu went on to document his own tatau, capturing the lines and designs of his unique journey. Semu’s work has also expanded to restaging historical events by incorporating his tattooed body in the reimagining and retelling of cinematic landscapes and religious iconography.

Based in California, photographer and cinematographer John Agcaoili has documented the work of the present generation of Sāmoan tattooists, many of whom use tattooing machines. The selection of portraits included in this exhibition shed light on tatau as an evolving art form, contextualising the ancient lines of tatau within a contemporary tattooing studio and urban settings.

Within her work Walking the Wall, artist Angela Tiatia explores the relationship between the female body as a fetishized object and her identity as a Sāmoan woman. By openly displaying her malu (female specific tattoo) within this moving image work, Tiatia confronts a Sāmoan cultural taboo while embracing symbols of female sexuality and challenging gender stereotypes.

9 November 2019 – 7 June 2020

Level 4 of Toi Art, Te Papa

Entry is free

Updated on 28th November 2019