Yellow Lei-light - triptych
Golden and good humoured, Niki HastingsMcFall’s
floral tribute to her Samoan heritage
has greeted tides of students and staff since
the opening of the Kate Edger Information
Commons in 2003.
Boxing together artificial yellow hibiscus
flowers with electric light, the artist uses
contemporary and permanent materials to link
the intangible qualities of a Pacific experience.
These showy blooms broadcast beneficence and
hospitality - they are flowers with power.
Part of the artist’s series Fl/Oral Histories,
made in 2002, they are delivered already
freighted with the inheritance of colonisation.
Permeated by a yellow light which symbolises
the legacy and continuing influence of
Christianity in the Pacific, they encapsulate past
and present. Their perky petals point to how
Pasifika traditions were suppressed by a new
authority in the nineteenth century. When
missionaries arrived, the role of verbal recitation
to establish social identity and position was
usurped by The Word, which was written.
Indigenous knowledge got devalued, part of the
darkness of ignorance that would be banished
before the light as souls were saved.
The triptych or three-panelled altarpiece is a
format associated with the Christian church.
Arranged across its surface, devotional imagery
conveyed the mysteries of faith. Iconoclastic,
this trio of trapped blooms is an adornment for
the altar of art. Rather than leading the viewer
to God, it points to two high points of 2othcentury
art for its form, combining the
readymade of Dada with the all-over technique
of an American colour field painting. A
three-piece suit, it shows how emblems of living
cultures can be appropriated into narratives of
power and displacement by museums, sealed in
airless vitrines, and placed on display for
popular consumption, and so consigned to
Raised in Titirangi (the Fringe of Heaven) by
palagi grandparents, Niki Hastings-McFall first
plied her making skills as a jeweler at the
Manukau School of Visual Arts, graduating in
2000. Craft was the vehicle she used to
navigate the shifting sands of her personal and
cultural identity, which became important to her
at the age of 35 years: “I first met my Samoan
father, James McFall in 1992. He was terminally
ill and sadly he died later that year. However, he
left me the rich legacy of my rich Samoan aiga
(family). Since these significant events, my work
has been increasingly driven by my research into
this Pacific Island heritage,” she writes.
Representing Ubuntu – kindness, generosity of
spirit and humanity – floral lei are symbolically
exchanged in many cultures of the Pacific, and
flowers are also worn in the hair or over the ear.
Despite prohibitions on the custom by church
fathers preoccupied with sin, the idea of the
islands as densely populated by languishing
dusky maidens, advertising availability and
consent by wearing flowers in their hair, has
persisted. Sourcing her artificial lei from the $2
shop, Niki Hastings-McFall’s positions her
flowers to face down the possibility of being
confined by this unreal stereotype.
Functioning both as garlands and as wreaths,
lei have sacred associations with the gods.
Giving, wearing, storing and disposing of lei is
governed by custom and protocol. Using
materials as synthetic as an economy dependent
on tourism, Niki Hastings-McFall shows how in
the contemporary world Pacific myths and
realities have become scrambled, and traditions
are not always honoured. A symbol of prestige
has become a cultural cliché, albeit lightly worn.