Edwin Napia has a creation story to tell. It comes in pieces, beautiful ceramic pieces he has assembled alongside the work of four other artists with roots in the South Pacific.
Napia grew up in New Zealand, a place nothing like the canvas world of Paul Gauguin, whose images from Tahiti depict islanders seated topless under swaying palm trees.
It was for dance, not athletics, confesses Napia with a laugh.
Now a Ph.D. candidate in educational studies at the University of Utah, Napia leads classes in ethnic studies. He instructs student teachers about how to work in classrooms full of cultural diversity.
You first have to understand yourself before you can appreciate the rest, explains Napia, who began working with clay just three years ago. He credits his Maori upbringing for his core inspiration, but turns to the American Southwest for new ideas. He says, I pour through art magazines and look at those pots.
Napia is also moved by the work of Les Calles, who earned his MFA in ceramics at BYU. He points to a large bowl Calles has decorated with abstract splashes of blues, greens, reds and browns.
What makes this different from crafts, explains Napia, is this is an expression of innerness, rather than an expression of outterness.
The colors in Calles bowl might evoke personal recollections of island sunsets. His ceramics aren’t made to carry water, but hold a visual memory instead.
They also carry an identity, much like the contemporary paintings of Mataumu Alisa. His large works combine dark graphite rubbings with paints and polishes to render austere wall-hangs. Red, green and black are the only colors to emerge from these provocative works.
Under the ceiling lights at Art Access, gallery director Ruth Lubbers senses something volcanic about two of Alisa’s works, Fata and Fa. In Alo, she feels a tremendous silence in the dark imagery.
There’s nothing silent about the remarkable portraits by VaiMoana Niumeitolu. A Tongan-American artist raised in Orem, the 18-year-old student at New York University pushes her islander art toward a vivid, urban edge.
In her artist’s statement, Niumeitolu lets loose. She introducers herself like a typhoon might crash into a Tongan shore. It’s a waylay of a hello.
As a Tongan-American woman artist, I am required to prove it, to always prove it, she writes. But you don’t get it, because you are not a Tongan-American woman artist. You don’t get it because you want to ignore the issues and ignore my confrontation. You see me at the bottom and it’s just unbelievable for you to see me on top. You don’t get it because you don’t see the love, the love in me, the love in my work. You’ll never get it if you don’t see the love.
Imagine one of the women in a Gauguin painting standing up, straightening her grass skirt and shouting at an audience of quiet gallery strollers. It would never happen, but Niumeitolu wants to make sure something happens when people look at her work.
Letting out a shout with a paint brush seems to be part of her creation story. It’s a story that lives on in the Tongan-American community here in Utah, and Lubbers hopes the gallery’s show can update islander identities that are often hidden by negative reports in the press and lingering stereotypes.
It does allow people in this state to see different kinds of images of the Pacific Islands, says Lubbers, describing how these artists have all come from more than a distance.
Napia, who seems content with settling for good in Utah, agrees with Lubbers. Through his journeys, Napia has allowed his cultural past to blend with other influences. The combination has come alive in clay as Napia uses his vision of islander art to establish an identity in new surroundings.
Tiritiri O Te Moana (Gifts From the Sea) will be up at Art Access Gallery until April 8. An opening reception will be held on Friday, March 20 from 6 to 9 p.m. in conjunction with Gallery Stroll. For more information, call 328-0703.