Photographer Mark Adams met Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II in 1978 and began documenting the practice of Sāmoan tatau.
His work has been recognised as being well ahead of its time, in particular for the implicit critique of photography of the ethnographic “other”.
A new collection of Adams’ images has now been published in an updated edition of Tatau: Samoan Tattoo, New Zealand Art, Global Culture.
Tatau, “tattowing” as Captain Cook’s sailors called it, or tattooing as it became, has long been a business of cultural exchange. From the late 18th century onward, mariners, mutineers and beachcombers marked their Polynesian visits by adopting or adapting the Indigenous body art; some, like the famous New Zealand “Pākehā–Māori” John Rutherford, went the whole way and expressed a supposed identification with local culture through a full moko (facial tattoo).
Their actions were at the time considered controversial and curious, which reflects the ambiguous nature of the transformation of identity that the operation implied. Were Europeans merely borrowing a Polynesian technique to decorate their bodies? Or were they stepping away from their European-ness, and claiming to be “Islanders”, or otherwise redefining themselves as cross-cultural people?
While Polynesia had an impact on Europe — the bodies of sailors were changed forever — Europe certainly also had an impact on the Pacific. The changes were diverse and included the abandonment of tattooing, advocated particularly by the evangelical missionaries who were so enduringly influential throughout Polynesia. Across the Pacific, tatau was suppressed and its knowledge marginalised, in some cases to be later recovered and revived.
The Sāmoan islands are virtually unique, in that tattooing has been continuously practiced using traditional techniques. The design of the full male tattoo, the pe‘a, has evolved in subtle ways since the 19th century, but remains as elaborate, meaningful and powerful as it ever was.
First Su‘a Tavui Pasina Iosefo Ah Ken and then Paulo Sulu‘ape brought these techniques and the pe‘a to Auckland in the 1970s. Paulo initially tattooed part time, among his community. His work came to the notice of artists such as Tony Fomison, who took the unusual step of acquiring the pe‘a. Paulo’s willingness to tattoo him was objected to by some Sāmoans, who were perhaps unaware of the already long history of Polynesians tattooing non-Polynesians.
In part through Fomison, Paulo became involved in the art scene, and otherwise became a prominent figure in the increasingly visible new Polynesian culture that made New Zealand so culturally distinctive from the late 1980s onward. He gave much support to Māori, Tahitian and Hawaiian tattooists and facilitated the reintroduction of traditional techniques among their communities.
In North America and Europe, he was lionised by the emerging tattoo art milieux; he produced new kinds of work, and worked in increasingly cosmopolitan contexts, such as Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum and a host of tattoo conventions and festivals.
Mark Adams met Paulo first in 1978 and photographed his practice, and that of his brothers and cousins, intensively for some years and then intermittently. After Paulo’s death in 1999, he produced a new, extended series of photographs of individuals tattooed by Paulo in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. Though there are other sources for Paulo’s practice — notably a little of his own writing, some interviews, and video footage — Adams’s images alone provide a wide-ranging record of Paulo’s activity over some 20 years, and notably embrace his work on Tony Fomison.
But beyond doing this, the images represent an unusually careful and complex response to the difficult issues of history, politics, violence and memory.
Mark Adams is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s foremost documentary photographers. His work has been extensively exhibited in Aotearoa, Australia, South Africa and Europe and at Brazil’s São Paulo biennale. His focus on Sāmoan tatau, Māori–Pākeha interactions in and around Rotorua, and the documentation of Cook’s landing sites reflects his engagement with our post-colonial Pacific history. Adams’s work is represented in most of New Zealand’s major art institutions, including the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Chartwell Collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
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