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Greg Semu: Art that explores displacement and belonging in the Pacific

Greg Semu
Greg Semu at the exhibition Collection+: Greg Semu at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney.

ABC: Allison Chan

Greg Semu is a visual artist of Samoan ancestry. Born and raised in New Zealand, he has lived in Paris, New York and London, and moved to Sydney five years ago. His photographic works explore the themes of displacement, belonging and colonial contact in the Pacific. A retrospective exhibition of Greg’s work is currently showing at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney.

This article has images that contain nudity.

Named after the American actor, Gregory Peck, Greg Semu dreamt of becoming an actor and describes his childhood as “pretty happy”.

Self portrait by Greg Semu
Auto portrait with faux diamond eye lash, 2015.

Supplied: Greg Semu

“But there was always this sense of displacement - like you don’t belong anywhere.”

This sense of displacement and search for belonging is a significant theme in Greg’s life and, consequently, his work.

“I was displaced on multiple levels. I was raised in a different family to the one I was born to. My ‘parents’ were my grandparents. But I didn’t know that they were my grandparents. I discovered this at the age of 16. It was quite a revelation that altered my life forever.”

Greg’s parents and grandparents were born in Samoa and had moved to New Zealand for “a better life”. He was exposed to Samoan culture and values, like respecting your elders, through “osmosis.”

Whilst he calls Samoa his ancestral and spiritual home, he doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in Samoa. “Going there, I felt alienated and isolated. It’s clear to Samoans born in Samoa that I’m not a native born, son of Samoa.”

Self-portrait, Basque Road, Newtown Gully series, 1995 by Greg Semu.
Self-portrait, Basque Road, Newtown Gully series, 1995 by Greg Semu. Installation view at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.

Supplied: silversalt photography

Despite this conflicted relationship, Greg is an initiated Samoan man and has gone through the practice of Samoan ta tau, or tattoo, from the waist to the knee. “It’s a 3000 - 5000 year old practice that we’ve never lost. It’s one of the very living authentic traditions that we have - that predates pre-colonial contact.”

“It’s hammer and chisel. People think it’s all about beauty but the number one priority about the Samoan initiation process is the pain. The pain was unbelievable - it was this burning sensation. When the hammer hits the chisel, it vibrates through your whole body. You’re carving and traumatising the human body.”

Detail from the series The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians, 2010 by Greg Semu
Auto Portrait with 12 Disciples (detail from the series The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians), 2010 by Greg Semu.

Supplied: Greg Semu & Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

Greg regularly includes himself in his photographs, which offer conversations about cultural and colonial displacement. His work, The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians, is a re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Lord’s Supper with Greg as the figure of Christ.

"My ancestors were cannibals and I’m also linking that with the cannibalistic metaphor of the covenant of Christ. Drinking water and eating bread that is symbolic of the body and blood of Christ,” says Greg.

Battle of the Noble Savage 1, 2007 by Greg Semu
Battle of the Noble Savage 1, 2007 by Greg Semu.

Supplied: Musée du quai Branly, Paris and Greg Semu

His work, Battle of the Noble Savage, which was produced during a residency in Paris has a similar approach. “I was interested in the colonial history of New Zealand and the Maori land wars. [The people in the image are] descendants of the Maori race and ambassadors in their own communities. Here I’ve hijacked Napoleon Bonaparte. The French people know Maori people as a Mickey Mouse caricature - when you say NZ Maori, they start imitating the traditional war dance, the haka...By hijacking Napoleon Bonaparte - taking an icon they know so well and turning him into a Maori - it gave them a reference point. So now I say ‘do you know the Napoleonic Wars? At the same time he was waging wars in Europe, NZ Maori were battling against British for their sovereignty.’ We’re giving them a historical reference point. I hijack iconic imagery that’s deeply entrenched in European history.”

Now living in Sydney, Greg is keen to explore how his approach to artmaking is relevant to Australian history and the country’s diverse communities.

Collection+ Greg Semu is exhibiting at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney from October 7 to December 10 2016.

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