An exciting debut show by an extraordinary Niuean artist, based in Aotearoa.
Marcus Hipa: Native Practitioner
The street art edge, as much via Diego Rivera as modern graffiti artists, and island soul are strongly evident in the paintings of Niue born and raised Aotearoa artist Marcus Hipa (b.1980). The origins of his practice begin with making do with whatever improvised resources were to hand in Niue. He moved to New Zealand to study at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, gaining BFA and MFA degrees, and his work reflects that cultivated polish as well. This is a very different view of ‘Pasifika’ identity than the slightly cliché touristic stereotypes that the art world tends to be used to – for one thing there isn’t a frangipani in sight.
Marcus’ unique brand of neo-expressionism employs a number of media – drawing, painting, and carving, oil paint, acrylic, oil stick, wax pencil, spray paint – with his main themes being Niuean history, culture and community, particularly the social and political issues that impact on the wider Moana community here in Aotearoa. Some of his work is naturalistic and figurative portraiture, though in a vigorously expressionistic manner, while in striking contract other works have a flatness to them reminiscent of the compositional traditions of hiapo (Niue Tapa). There is, however, no deliberate imitation of any particular style or aesthetic, but a synthesis of multiple Western and Pacific sources.
Trickles of paint down the front of the canvas recall the later works of Bill Hammond, but also seem to question the establishment painterly pretentions of the drip as expressive. It could just as easily be sweat or blood but exist in a defiant counterpoint with the figurative subjects of the paintings. The strong colours and distorted forms would sit well with the work of Philip Clairmont – it’s psychological and introspective. Every line feels like an assertive affirmation or bold negation of something else. This is strong work and it’s going places. It’s also a difficult path through a cultural landscape largely dominated by white money and hegemonic exercises in permission and exclusion.
The art in Marcus Hipa: Native Practitioner, especially the mask-like imagery in the Volu, has accidental resonances with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) who likewise managed to bring the pop culture eclecticism and gritty urban energy into the ever-so-white cube of the art gallery. Of course these are two completely different artists following two very different paths of artistic development, but there is something of a Basquiat-esque air about the robot-like Volu faces – the inverted crown-like jaws echoing similar imagery in Basquiat’s work, reflected again in the crowns of human figures on top of the heads.
In vagahau Niuē, “Volu” means to scrape and these jagged metal-looking forms are based on coconut scrapers, which offers us a way into Marcus’ visual language. They are about changing and adapting to new circumstances. The jagged teeth of the scraper point up to the mouth and up to the eyes as if to suggest the transformation of a transplanted immigrant changing the way they speak and perceive to fit in with the new environment. This is about the future as much as the past. Coconut scraping comes up again in Heroes Scrape Coconuts. This painting alluded to Marcus’ grandfather, the first Niuean to train as a medical doctor, but on return from his training in Fiji he was denied the title of doctor, being referred to as a ‘Native Practitioner’ – which became the title of this solo show. The figure is yellow, the colour of Niue’s flag.
Obviously, the coconut is an important staple on Niue, and scraping them a matter of community survival. Translated to the context of the wider Moana diaspora in Aotearoa, might this take on a more symbolic, even allegorical meaning? Scraping a living, being scraped by an exploitive capitalist, predominantly Pākehā society, to be at the bottom, to fight (at least in English slang), or just the simple act of labour toward a common good. Labour is an important theme in these paintings; emotional and artistic labour, but also the heavy, hard work of migrant workers in the New Zealand economy – the work that brought many people to Aotearoa in the first place. Marcus spends his evenings in the studio, but his day job is in construction and he was worked in similar male-dominated physical labour-based industries before that.
There is a lot of raw, intense emotion in these works, a lot of assertiveness, and alienation, and maybe even anger – but also pride in identity and family. Injustice is a reoccurring theme, and the celebration of community and its contributions to Aotearoa. Marcus takes up the romantic art historical trope of the hero and applies it to the marginalised and disenfranchised. It’s easy to be reminded a little of Alberto Giacometti’s late paintings where the sitter is constructed entirely of, and trapped within, a web of emotionally taut lines.
New Zealand and Niue have a complicated history together. Niue has existed as a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand since 1974 with Niuean people having automatic New Zealand citizenship. It isn’t entirely clear what that relationship means. Theoretically Niue has total autonomy in domestic and foreign affairs, recognised by the UN since 1994, which it exercises largely unchallenged, but in practice Wellington can cancel New Zealand citizenship if it deems Niue to be threatening New Zealand interests, which is an awfully large stick to hold.
Before free association, from 1901 Niue was officially part of New Zealand, and the relationship was far from equitable. In living memory. the brutality of the regime of New Zealand Commissioner Larsen in the 1950s led to his being murdered in his bed. Clearly there is a lot of darkness and emotion around these events that tends to be brushed under the carpet and has yet to be fully resolved. The painting Dinner Bell is a direct reference to Larsen and his pastime of hitting golf balls into the jungle and forcing prisoners from the local gaol to hunt for them if they wanted to eat. The three machete-outlines in blood red allude to his eventual fate.
Marcus is an extraordinary emerging artist, clearly very much in love with the act of making art, of painting and drawing, and part of a community of Moana artists who support each other having created a space for themselves in Aotearoa’s art scene. His work is visually exciting and thematically striking, heartfelt, assertive and aesthetically stimulating – a practitioner we are grateful to have.
Andrew Paul Wood