WHOSE ART ANYWAY?
By Michael Field
Attended the launching of Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, at the Fale Pasifika at Auckland University. Te Papa Press have produced a remarkable work which must surely be in line for a major book award.
It is more the likely going to be the only major cultural study of Sāmoan tattooing for generations - an important fact to consider when faced with British Museum hostility toward the project.
What was sad came in the seminar at the launching conducted by authors Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot.
Mallon discussed the various influences that were affecting the design of tatau. I was interested in his comment that the Mau had little effect on design and that so far as the authors could tell , the Mau had focused on song and its uniform, rather than on tattoo.
He said the US occupation of New Zealand Sāmoa did have a striking impact. To prove it he showed a page from their book which showed a line drawing of a male tattoo featuring an obvious American eagle.
He said the illustration came from the British Museum and was part of a collection of 56 drawings of Sāmoan tattoo from the middle of the 20th Century. The authors and Te Papa wanted to publish more, but the British Museum insisted that it would have to pay $1000 per illustration to publish it.
They could not afford it.
At the launching Te Papa Press publisher Nicola Legat expressed public disdain for the attitude of the British Museum.
The drawings were made between 1949 and 1952 by Englishman Jack Groves, a painter and draughtsman employed by the New Zealand Trust Estates. This government organisation administered the German plantations that New Zealand had seized in World War One.
Groves, born in 1925, was in his late twenties when tattoos caught his attention.
His drawings and a manuscript appear to be part of a private hobby; there is no record of the Trust Estates commissioning a study.
He returned to Nottingham in England and presumably has long since died. His collection of drawings ended up in a folder at the British Museum. The last communications between the family and the museum was 36 years ago.
Parts of the manuscript have appeared in various academic work.
“There is a strong tendency nowadays to display the American Eagle in a tattoo design actually as the whole or part of the punialo,’ Groves wrote in the unpublished work. “This would seem to be the result of occupation of the American troops during the war. There seems to be nothing incongruous to the Sāmoan mind in the spread eagle appearing in what is entirely a fa’asamoa decoration and its quite impossible to convince them of it.”
Some of the pictures are now digitally available and it brings into question why the British Museum demands $1000 a print to publish it in a scholarly, artistic work. Who is getting the money, certainly not Jack Groves?
And certainly not Sāmoa; indeed, the British Museum is acting in the true tradition of imperial plunder of art works. The real owners of the prints, surely, are the tattoo artists? They painstakingly designed and applied the art.
Why should the British Museum profit of it?
Groves recorded some of the artists on the prints, although some of the spelling appears odd; Idelu of Siumu, Tuisaua Kemea of Falelatai, Sali Kalo of Vaiusu, Tafao Tuuu of Vaialua and Fasioso Pao.
Who owns the copyright on these drawings is plainly debatable. Sāmoa’s Copyright Act 1998 gives title to an artists work up to 75 years after the person’s death. It’s not known when Groves died (and if he hasn’t, he’s 93) but what is wrong is the way the British Museum has taken Sāmoa’s culture and turned it into a source of profit for an institution that had little to do with the production of the art.
They must surely know that such a book is not going to make a grand profit for its authors and publishers, but would enrich the love and passion the people from whom the art derived pleasure and pride.
Included here are some of the British Museum’s online images. They are not suitable for publication. (Lo-Res)