“Things are just happening so fast. Last year was the hottest year on the planet. I wanted to make work that mimicked that.”
For some years now, artist Paula Schaafhuasen has used the materials and traditions of her Samoan home to talk about the threat climate change poses to Pacific nations.
In her latest exhibition, Ebbing Tagaloa at Otara’s Fresh Gallery, she’s crafted a series of small statues of the ocean god Tagaloa using materials familiar to anyone from the Pacific; Koko Samoa and coconut oil.
“Coconut oil – that’s basically us. Everyone uses that term coconut as derogatory but actually it’s the tree of life. You can build your homes with it; you can feed your families. It’s all there.”
Ebbing Tagaloa began life while Paula was studying at Auckland University and is adapted to match the local environment each time it is shown. In this version, there are 33 different Tagaloa figures, arranged on five large round trays, referencing the island groups of Kiribati. But like the low-lying islands they symbolise, each of the statues is a fragile thing.
Like Kiribati, the Tagaloa are sensitive to climate and if they are left at room temperature, they quickly melt and collapse. Paula estimates that the entire display will take about two days to become a series of sweet-smelling puddles on the floor of the gallery. It’s a potent unpacking of the illusion of permanence. “I don’t think there is anything that’s really permanent. That’s the whole point of the show.”
Paula works at a museum in Auckland and has in the past expressed her frustration at seeing Pacifica objects being displayed behind glass, away from the damage that might be caused by human hands. That won’t be happening with this work.
“I like it when people touch it and smell it and feel it. Let’s share the culture, share the feelings, smell what it’s supposed to smell like, touch it and if it falls apart, that’s the life, that was what was supposed to happen.”