Born in New Zealand, curator, artist and self-taught photographer Greg Semu embraces his Samoan culture and ancestry in his mural-sized photograph, The Last Cannibal Supper, Cause Tomorrow We Become Christians, held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
This work is from a series of images he created in 2010 while in residency at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia and directly references the iconic 15th-century fresco by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper in Milan, Italy. Here Semu is not only the creator/photographer but the subject too. He is the central Jesus figure, resplendent in his Samoan waist-to-knee pe’a tattoo, with local Kanaks as the 12 disciples, set before a feast of traditional Samoan food.
Semu seduces and challenges the viewer with his finely crafted and carefully staged photographic tableaus. In faux-documentary style, Semu depicts an imaginary moment in history when Samoan people were cajoled by the missionaries to give up their traditional practices, rites and Gods, in order to embrace Christianity. His image conveys that turbulent moment, rich with irony and a touch of humour.
In the video, Semu discusses the profound impact Christianity has had on his people and, in particular, local customs such as cannibalism. Strewn across the table are many items of traditional Samoan food including pigs, taro and yams but also prosthetic human limbs and a skull. While Christian missionaries sought to banish such ‘savage’ customs, Semu draws attention to the similarities of rites of the Last Supper where the bread and wine symbolise the body and blood of Christ.
Provocatively, one of the disciples is presented as a bare-breasted female. Here references are made to the western tradition of ethnographic photography depicting naked natives in ‘Garden of Eden’ settings, as well as Semu’s own interest in the French artist Paul Gauguin’s Pacific work from the late 19th century and renowned French painter Eugène Delacroix in his major history painting Liberty leading the people created in 1830.
In Semu’s last supper, he draws attention to the negative impact of colonial intrusion into indigenous cultures and questions notions of the primitive and savage, while attempting to regain lost heritage by restaging grand European narratives with indigenous people taking centre stage.