Peter Brunt at the Oceania exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris in 2019. Oceania opened at the Royal Academy of Art, London in 2018 and at the quai Branly in 2019.

Thanks to his many years as an actor, artist and art historian, Peter Brunt has a host of hats he’s entitled to wear. And, when he’s explaining his own Sāmoan history, he’s also helping other Pacific artists to understand and appreciate their Pacific whakapapa. Having grown up in Auckland, and taking years before he saw Sāmoa first-hand, he’s had time to digest the impressions he’s gathered as a member of those living away from their “homeland”. And he knows the feelings of those who, like himself, have powerful links to both Sāmoa and Aotearoa. In this discussion, he and Dale, touch on some of those issues.


Peter, front left, with his parents Peka and Theodore, brother Alfred and half-brother Rocky, in Kingsland, Auckland, in 1962. The occasion was his father’s 90th birthday party.

Talofa, Peter. Could you tell us a bit about your name, your whānau and your villages?

I’m not quite sure about the origin of my name. My father named all of his children, most of whom were born in Sāmoa, with European names, such as Charles and Charlotte and John. So it may have something to do with his English side.

Both my parents had Sāmoan mothers and European fathers. My father, Theodore, was a very old man when I was born. He was 82, and I’m his 20th child. He was born in 1872 in Fagamalo, in Sāmoa. That’s his village, and he had children from six different women, four of whom he married, one after the other. He was a serial monogamist, you could say.

He was the son of one of the first British settlers in Sāmoa, Charles Mellor Brunt, who was born in 1826, and who probably arrived in Sāmoa in the late 1850s or early 1860s. He married Sieni Ape Vui, my paternal grandmother, from the village of Lano in Savai‘i, which is the ancestral village of all the Sāmoan Brunts.

They had seven children, one of whom was my father. Almost all of them had big families, just like my father — 19 children, 16 children. So it’s an enormous family that I come from on my father’s side. Around the world now, there are hundreds of descendants through my paternal grandparents.

On my mother’s side, it’s a different story. Her mother, Sousou Seiuli, was from the village of Vaiala, near Apia. Her father was European. His name was Johab Riggall and that’s all we know about him. They didn’t marry but Sousou had three children from him, one of whom was my mother. But that relationship broke up very early and he disappeared. Sousou then married Tofaeono Tialino, my mother’s stepfather.

My mother Roberta, or Peka as she was known, was born in 1912. She married my father in 1950 — not a love marriage, by the way. She was obeying her mother who wanted her to marry him and settle down. In the 1950s, my parents came to New Zealand where mum had the last two of my father’s 20 children — myself and my older brother, Alfred, who’s two years older than me.

All my half-siblings were born in Sāmoa. They were much older people by the time I was born, and many had already moved to New Zealand. My parents bought a house in Kingsland. That’s where I grew up, in inner-city Auckland.

Peter’s father Theodore Weber Brunt outside the Brunt family house at Tanugamanono in Upolu, in 1928. His second wife Frieda Schwenke is in the window upstairs and some of Peter’s half-siblings are by the doors and windows.

Peter’s mother Peka (left) his grandmother Sousou Seiuli (back left) and his mother’s sister Daisy (front right). Peka and Daisy were “house girls” for a European family in Apia. The photograph is from the 1930s. (Photo supplied)

I’m curious about the artistic pathway that you’ve been on. As far as school is concerned, was it art that intrigued you?

Growing up, I had a talent for art. I was good at drawing, and loved to draw, and I had the naïve idea that I would be an artist — not that I particularly knew what that meant. I went to high school for my first year at Mt Albert Grammar School, but after that I attended Church College of New Zealand in Hamilton, an LDS Mormon school.

My art teacher was Buck Nin, one of the Māori modernists who were working in the 1950s and ’60s. Buck was friends with people like Para Matchitt and Selwyn Muru and that group. So, he was an important influence on me in high school. He supported my ambitions to be an artist and directed me towards applying to Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University.

Peter at a week-long workshop for artistically talented high school students in Wellington in 1971 (with Helen Fonoti).

Peter (left) pictured with artist Ralph Hotere (right), one of the tutors in a workshop for high schoolers, 1972. (Photo supplied)

Other things that influenced my early career ambitions were the discovery of theatre and acting, in high school. I was passionate about both. I did go to Elam, in the late ’70s, but then transferred to Brigham Young University in Utah and became very serious about acting.

I was there for two years with my wife, Leonie, and we had a child in the US. We then went to Los Angeles for two years, where I was trying to make a career as an actor.

Then I came back to Auckland and worked in the theatre. I was at the Mercury Theatre Company, which was a professional theatre company in Auckland at the time. It had Pacific people who were well-known actors in New Zealand, like Nat Lees and Lani Tupu. And George Henare of course. I was part of a theatre group called Tantrum. I worked in film and television too.

I did that for 10 years — and at stage, I didn’t really know anything about art history. I mean, I’d taken art history courses as a student at Elam, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. It was just something I did because it was compulsory.

The turning point, in my career as an art historian, came in my 30s, in the late 1980s, when theatre in Auckland was struggling. Professional companies like Theatre Corporate went down, and so did the Mercury Theatre.

Acting days. Peter as Angelo in Measure for Measure at the Globe Playhouse, Los Angeles, 1981. (Photo supplied)

So, in the late 1980s, I thought I’d enrol in an art history course in Auckland University, just to keep my mind occupied, and absolutely loved it. I guess it touched an intellectual side in me that had always been there but had been dormant.

I loved it so much that I enrolled full time into a master’s programme, and then accepted a scholarship to do a PhD at Cornell University in New York state.

Part of my journey as an art historian and an academic has been about confronting the history of art as it relates to the Pacific. I was interested in artists like Tony Fomison, who was close to the Sāmoan tattooist Sulu‘ape Paulo, and received a tatau from him. I was fascinated by that story. I ended up writing about it.

I was also interested in some European artists who went to Sāmoa. And I wrote about European artists like William Hodges who was on Captain Cook’s voyages, and who went right through the Pacific. I was especially interested in cross-cultural encounters and engagements between Europeans and Pacific Islanders.

My academic journey has been a way for me to find my way back to the Pacific, and to make sense of my own history — which is the history of European settlers from all sorts of places who lived in Sāmoa. I was aware of the vastness of the Pacific story because it’s my story too. And it was history and academia that gave me a way to understand that.

The other turning point was a personal story about my mother, who was this quiet, humble woman from Sāmoa, who brought up my brother and me after our father died when I was eight. She passed away in 1993, when I was at Cornell, and I came back to New Zealand for her funeral. On the way back to the US, I went to Sāmoa for the first time, and it was a life-changing experience for me.

It took the blinders off my eyes about who she was, who my father was, who my relations were in Sāmoa, and who I was. I met people who described my mother in a way that was completely unfamiliar to me.

They talked to me about the way she helped some of my cousins come to New Zealand. One came to study at medical school, and she helped him with his passport. I remember seeing her writing letters to relations in Sāmoa, but I guess I wasn’t very interested because I didn’t know who was at the receiving end of them, until this stopover on the way back to New York. There was this whole side of her that I was ignorant of.

I met relations on my father’s side, as well. They took me around the islands and introduced me to people who were important in my family history. It was a major turning point. It showed up the narrowness of my youth and my early married years. It was the beginning of a shift. My work as an art historian is now exclusively about the Pacific.

I’ve been involved in a number of research projects — some on my own, some with different teams of colleagues. One of the first was a multi-authored project on tattooing in the Pacific.

My contribution was another essay on Tony Fomison. That was the starting point for subsequent work that I did with Sean Mallon, Nicholas Thomas and photographer Mark Adams which would ultimately become the Tatau book, which was first published in 2010. A second, updated edition was published last month.

Another project was the multi-authored book Art in Oceania: A New History, which led to my role as co-curator of the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Art in London and the Quai Branly in Paris.

Peter with his cousins and his mother’s sister in Sāmoa, in 1993.

Buck Nin and the artists that you touched on have been hugely influential in the celebration of Māori art and Pasifika art. I wonder if you’d touch on how art in our region was affected by colonialism. Sometimes I get the feeling that we’re seen as something of a quaint artistic tradition, when in fact Pacific art can stand alongside other artforms. What would you say of some of the dynamics around our Oceanic or Pacific artistic traditions and the more western-influenced artistic traditions? Do we stack up?

Absolutely. I’d say that one difference between Pacific and western art until the modern era is how so many of the artforms that come out of the Pacific were associated with ceremony and ritual and deities. They were embedded in the spiritual and cultural life of communities.

That’s part of our history, and I think when we encounter a lot of those kinds of taonga in museums, or in places where they’re specifically on display for a public audience, we can forget or not fully appreciate the role that, say, a fine mat, an ‘ie toga, would have played — and still plays — in Sāmoa, in the relationships between families and villages or as gifts given to a chief.

That sort of social and cultural dimension in our art is very important. It’s something that Māori and Pacific Islanders are aware of. And that relationship to community remains intact in that sort of artwork.

That was something Buck Nin and Para Matchitt and that early group were doing in the 1960s and ’70s. They were staging exhibitions in galleries and also affirming their affiliation with marae — and making sure that the organisation of artists, writers and poets was grounded in those community-based sites.

I don’t know that the same thing exists in western art in the modern era, where the gallery or the museum has become the destination of artists who make work.

Given the revival of contemporary Māori and Pacific art today, the philosophical and cultural awareness of the relationship to community and place is something that a lot of artists are thinking through and trying to orient their work towards.

There’s an energy that is unprecedented in the contemporary art space. And, as those artists look to their history and learn more about the history of the work that they draw on, there’s the potential to shift the nature of contemporary art practice. That’s one of the most exciting things that I see happening in the contemporary art world.

The opening of Oceania at the Royal Academy of Art, London, 2018. (Photo Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News)

Our people have utilised European art in the way we express ourselves. Māori are Pasifika people, too, so there’s no distinction needed, because we all share genealogical whakapapa connections. But there are other people who aren’t of our blood who are being influenced by the artistic traditions of the land they’ve grown up in.

We’ve got Pākehā who are incorporating the koru, or aspects of design that you wouldn’t initially have thought they’d be interested in, but I’m okay with that. I think it’s a wonderful celebration of art and of kotahitanga — of us coming together.

I wonder how you feel about that, and whether you’re seeing that emerging, too — that more people, even though they might not be from Māori or Pasifika bloodlines, have aspects of these artistic traditions that are influencing their work.

I’m like you. I’m not hard and fast about whether that’s okay or not. It’s hard to generalise about that back and forth between cultures — that mutual borrowing, that sort of exchange and influence which has gone on historically for centuries.

I support that kind of exchange, but there are ethical issues around it. I don’t think that we can make a kind of blanket statement about it being okay or not okay. It’s quite a complex question when you drill down.

Among Sāmoans, for example, some wonder whether it’s appropriate for the malu or the pe‘a to be acquired by non-Sāmoan people — whether it transgresses the sacredness of the tatau.

I think you have to know about the specific situation before you can make judgment calls. For example, Tony Fomison, a Pākehā, was tattooed by Sulu‘ape Paulo. Was that appropriate? If you look at Fomison’s history and life, it complicates any simple answer to that question. He was a close friend of Paulo’s. He supported Pacific artists when few of them were being supported. People like Fatu Feu’u. So I’m very grateful for Tony’s advocacy of what they were doing.

And he tried to learn Sāmoan. He understood his pe’a, and what it meant. He tried to live up to the meaning of the pe’a, which is basically to commit to the culture. In the village context, that meant certain things for young men. In an urban context, it has come to mean something else. Tony’s tattoo brother (Fuimaono Tuiasau), for example, worked as a lawyer for Pacific people in New Zealand. In that way, he’s still honouring the traditional significance of the pe’a.

I think Tony Fomison understood that significance and in his own way attempted to live up to the pe’a he was given. I could name other examples like that, of people who Paulo tattooed, including a Dutch art collector who lives in Amsterdam. When you see his photograph in Mark Adams’ book, it can be confronting, but the story with him is similar. He was close friends with Paulo. They were both tattooists. They were fellow artists who admired each other’s work. Paulo got very sick in Amsterdam, and this person, Michel, looked after him through that whole time.

There are these kinds of relationships that are building across cultures through these artforms. Paulo famously, but controversially, organised the giving of the Sulu‘ape title to a number of tattoo artists from different countries: Hawai‘i, Māori, some from Europe, some from the United States.

From the outside, it looks a controversial thing to do, but, in a way, Paulo was being forward-thinking and taking important steps in modernising the Sāmoan tatau for a more networked global world that we live in now.

You can see from a sociological perspective that Paulo and other tufuga were repositioning tatau to accommodate the Sāmoan diaspora in cities around the world.

There’s increasing interest among many people in Sāmoan tatau in a context where tattooing globally has become a phenomenon over the last 10-20 years. I mean, it’s exploded. When Paulo was first tattooing in Auckland, few people knew about Sāmoan tattooing. It was just happening in migrant homes.

Now, it’s everywhere. So, I think that’s an example of artists who are practising in cross-cultural contexts but in a way that’s still bound to the significance and meaning of those marks that they place on people’s bodies. And those meanings are different for different people.

Some Sāmoans who live in the United States may have never been to Sāmoa. They may just know about it through stories that their grandparents tell. But they want to identify as Sāmoan, and to express that identification. The tatau has come to serve that connection.

I know an Irish PhD student who was studying artists in Sāmoa and made contact with someone who was authorised through their genealogical connection to give her an armband, and she wore it proudly. She’s Irish with a Sāmoan armband. That’s the character of the world that we live in, in the way that Pacific traditions have modernised and adapted but still remain Pacific traditions.

What’s ahead for you as you continue to work in this space?

I have a number of projects that I’m interested in. I’m hoping to go to Fiji later this year. I’m interested in looking at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. I want to look at the art collection, to see how far back it goes — and I’m interested in the USP as a centre for a lot of Pacific artists, writers, poets, in the 1960s and ’70s.

I’m also interested in writing a bit more about Mark Adams, Tony Fomison and Sulu‘ape Paulo. Their friendship is fascinating. They’re very different kinds of artists. Two of them are settler-colonial artists with different sorts of practices — one a painter, one a photographer. And there’s their Sāmoan friend, the tattooist. Each of them was doing their own work, but they shared this intimate friendship with each other.

Artists like Fomison and Adams were confronting the colonial history of this country, when few others were. So, I’m interested in those three; their context, their work.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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