The Eternals
Anna Bibby Gallery
2-26 October, 2007

Tar-Babies & Taboos
by Bronwyn Lloyd


When Graham Fletcher was a child in the 70s he attended Richmond Road Primary School back in the days when Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were vibrant Pacific Island communities, before the housing boom took hold of Auckland and the former population of the central suburbs were squeezed out to the perimeter of the city. Graham recalls an occasion when the bigger kids at school put on a play of the Uncle Remus folk tale, ‘The Tar-Baby’. The role of the Tar-Baby was played by a boy with a black stocking over his head to simulate the tar that Brer Fox and Brer Bear had used to construct the sticky figure that they hoped would nab their nemesis, the cheeky trickster Brer Rabbit. Graham and the other kids howled with laughter as Brer Rabbit took offence at the inanimate Tar-Baby’s lack of courtesy in not returning his good morning greeting and proceeded to kick the shit out of it, getting more and more stuck to the Tar-Baby with every blow he landed. It was the kind of ‘smell the cheese’ variety of slapstick humour that we’ve come to know and love in Bro Town, Sione’s Wedding, and those ‘sharpen up’ ads on tv.

Years later when Graham’s career as an artist was well underway he was invited to produce a print as part of a fund-raising drive by the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. The image he produced looked, at first glance, like an amoeba floating on a bright orange ground but a second look revealed that it was a little black face with staring eyes and a tiny oval mouth caught in a silent exclamation. Graham titled the print, Tar-Baby.

Shortly afterwards a series of sculptural works appeared in Graham’s practice, which had until then been focused exclusively on painting. There was a group of comical looking masks made from slumped masses of garishly coloured enamel paint with ping pong balls and assorted bits and bobs added as eyes and other features. At the time Graham was elaborating an idea for his art that he termed ‘lounge-room tribalism’, a parodic take on the trend in interior design for incorporating cultural artefacts as an aesthetic feature in contemporary homes with little regard for the origins or cultural significance of the carvings, masks, tapa cloths, and other items so tastefully displayed.

Aside from the group of masks, Graham made a small seated figure of a man carved from a block of polystyrene and covered in thick black enamel paint. The figure was positioned next to a large disc of polystyrene, also painted black, and was given the title Rotten Sun, a reference to an essay by Georges Bataille.

I have to say that I found the work perplexing. The figure and the title weren’t a match in my mind and I was struck by the incongruity between the rotten and the sad in the work. In an effort to understand why the small sculptural figure both charmed and repelled me I wrote a short fable about it.

Rotten Sun                                       

The artist made a man from a block of polystyrene, paint, tape, and glue. He roughly carved the man, giving him a small round head, stooped shoulders, arms at his side and legs extended before him. He covered the man in layer upon layer of black paint, each coat blanketing the one beneath until he was coated in so many layers of paint that the man inside was completely concealed and the layers became the man.

The artist encountered difficulties while making the man because the weight of the paint was so great and the pressure on the fragile figure so immense that at one point his head detached from his shoulders and had to be reconnected with tape and glue and still more layers of paint to cover the seam.

The artist cut a big round disc from a thin sheet of polystyrene and painted it cadmium yellow like the sun. Then he took his black paint and painted over the yellow leaving only a ragged border of colour. He placed the disc against the wall and sat the painted man on the floor facing the black circle. The artist called the work Rotten Sun.

Everybody was charmed by the figure of the little black man facing the large black sun because black is a charm, a non-colour, coffee without milk, thief of light. Black is an end requiring no investment.

But the sun is not black except for a brief time during a solar eclipse. And the sun is not rotten because it is the source of all light. In Aesop's fable the kindly sun beat the wind using its radiance to disrobe the traveller. Persuasion is better than force.

Over time the sun would melt away the layers of black paint from the man revealing the tape that hides the seam connecting his head to his shoulders and leaving only the naked form of a crudely carved man sitting in the sunshine.

You see, I was groping for a fable that might explain Graham’s Rotten Sun. With hindsight I realise that Aesop wasn’t the right choice. The folk tales of Uncle Remus are where we should look because what Graham had really made was another Tar-Baby.

Something about the Tar-Baby story has always troubled me. Why did Brer Rabbit, so cocksure and brazen, take offence at the Tar-Baby’s silence? Why did the Tar-Baby bring out a violence in him?

“Youer stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,” says Brer Rabbit, sezee, “en I’m gwineter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a-gwineter do,” sezee.
Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin.
“I’m gwineter larn you howter talk ter ‘specttuble folkes ef hit’s de las’ ack,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. “Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwineter bus’ you wide open,” sezee.

Let’s stop the tale right there.

I’m going to claim that Brer Rabbit was so offended because he recognised that the Tar-Baby was his antithesis - it was everything that Brer Rabbit felt he was not - silent, disreputable, stuck up, black (based on the assumption that Brer Rabbit is a southern white male).

The Tar-Baby can be seen as the Jungian archetype of the shadow: an embodiment of everything that man rejects in himself. This is the idea that the person we choose to be automatically creates a dark double, the person we choose not to be. Jung claims that in order to achieve a state of completion we have to recognise those traits in ourselves that we reject, and absorb our shadow so that it is no longer a separate and ever present reminder of who we are not. Brer Rabbit, stuck fast to the Tar-Baby, is only able to trick his way free once he ceases to resist and instead accepts it as a part of himself.

The Tar-Baby story is really about duality - a subject that Graham has grappled with in his painting for the past decade. I’m stepping into taboo territory here and running the risk of landing myself in the briar patch but it is important to make the point that the discourse of post-colonialism, where Graham’s work has been placed, has generated an expectation, whether real or imagined, that artists of colour will produce work with cultural content, that their work will express the politics of identity, and that it will contribute to the continuum of art produced by a particular cultural group.

But how does an artist like Graham, half Samoan and half European, fit into that discourse? There is no place for the half and half in post-colonialism. Graham either has to privilege one half of his culture over another or pit the two halves against each other. In either case the dark shadow is created.

Graham chose the latter option and in recent years he has produced work where a constant battle is being waged between the two halves. He has effaced tapa cloth, overlaying the textured decorative surface with a pattern of bacterial and viral diseases introduced by Westerners into the Pacific Islands. He has camouflaged Gauguin’s images of dusky maidens, their nubile forms buried beneath a tropical surface of hibiscus and banana palms. He has adapted Warhol’s bold flower prints into grids of blurred and bleeding flowers inspired by lava lava designs, and he has assembled ranks of stylised frangipani blooms pinned to the wall like poppies on Anzac Day. 

It couldn’t last. At a certain point Graham needed to bring the two halves together and vanquish the shadow. The penny dropped when he was reading a Robert Louis Stevenson  novella, ‘The Beach of Falesa’, another version of the Tar-Baby story.

When English trader John Wiltshire arrives at the South Sea island of Falesa, hoping to make his fortune, the crooked copra trader Mr Case determines to foil Wiltshire’s enterprise. He assigns an island maiden to Wiltshire as his wife, deliberately choosing Uma, an out-islander, a half-caste, and local pariah, knowing full well that the union will guarantee that no-one will trade with Wiltshire and that his business will be tabooed.

Uma realises that she has been used by Case to bring about Wiltshire’s financial downfall and offers to leave her husband so that the taboo will be lifted but Wiltshire’s love for her overrides his business interests and he beseeches her to stay, desperately trying to think of another way to break the curse and settle the score with Case.

Wandering one day through the darkest bush clad region of the island, a place believed by the islanders to be cursed, a place where evil spirits reside and from which no man returns, Wiltshire sees Case emerging from the dense bush. When Case is out of sight Wiltshire takes the path through the undergrowth where he discovers a spirit ground. He quickly realises that it is no ancient sacred place but a man-made folly of Case’s devilish invention:

    “Well, Mr. Case,” said I, “you’ve frightened me once, but I defy you to frighten me again,” I says, and slipped down the tree, and set out again to find my enemy’s head office, which I guessed would not be far away.
The undergrowth was thick in this part; I couldn’t see before my nose, and must burst my way through by main force and ply the knife as I went, slicing the cords of the lianas and slashing down whole trees at a blow. […]
A bit along the path I was brought to a clear stand, and had to rub my eyes. There was a wall in front of me, the path passing it by a gap; it was tumbledown and plainly very old, but built of big stones very well laid; and there is no native alive to–day upon that island that could dream of such a piece of building. Along all the top of it was a line of queer figures, idols or scarecrows, or what not. They had carved and painted faces ugly to view, their eyes and teeth were of shell, their hair and their bright clothes blew in the wind, and some of them worked with the tugging. There are islands up west where they make these kind of figures till to– day; but if ever they were made in this island, the practice and the very recollection of it are now long forgotten. And the singular thing was that all these bogies were as fresh as toys out of a shop.
Then it came in my mind that Case had let out to me the first day that he was a good forger of island curiosities, a thing by which so many traders turn an honest penny. And with that I saw the whole business, and how this display served the man a double purpose: first of all, to season his curiosities, and then to frighten those that came to visit him. […]
A little farther on I found the best curiosity of the museum. The first I saw of it was a longish mound of earth with a twist to it. Digging off the earth with my hands, I found underneath tarpaulin stretched on boards, so that this was plainly the roof of a cellar. It stood right on the top of the hill, and the entrance was on the far side, between two rocks, like the entrance to a cave. I went as far in as the bend, and, looking round the corner, saw a shining face. It was big and ugly, like a pantomime mask, and the brightness of it waxed and dwindled, and at times it smoked.
“Oho!” says I, “luminous paint!”
And I must say I rather admired the man’s ingenuity. With a box of tools and a few mighty simple contrivances he had made out to have a devil of a temple. Any poor Kanaka brought up here in the dark, with the harps whining all round him, and shown that smoking face in the bottom of a hole, would make no kind of doubt but he had seen and heard enough devils for a lifetime.
[…]I remember a boy I was at school with at home who played the Case business. He didn’t know anything, that boy; he couldn’t do anything; he had no luminous paint and no Tyrolean harps; he just boldly said he was a sorcerer, and frightened us out of our boots, and we loved it. And then it came in my mind how the master had once flogged that boy, and the surprise we were all in to see the sorcerer catch it and bum like anybody else. Thinks I to myself, “I must find some way of fixing it so for Master Case.” And the next moment I had my idea.


Wiltshire realised that Case had secured his position of power on the Island by playing the role of sorcerer and exploiting the islanders’ superstitions.  Case simply presented them with their shadow like the Tar-Baby placed in Brer Rabbit’s path. Wiltshire needed to expose Case’s folly, destroy it, and lift the taboo that was hanging over his marriage and his business. Dynamite destroyed Case’s folly, a bullet dealt to Case himself, and it was a happy ever after ending for Wiltshire and Uma.

Having read Stevenson’s story Graham immediately set about turning it into art. In pursuit of the shadow he gathered up the accumulated debris in his studio and fashioned a version of Case’s folly, a vast group of idols made from coconut fibre, shells, feathers, polystyrene balls and other items, each figure coated in thick black paint and doused with wax. 

Graham envisaged a suite of paintings to sit alongside the idols that would elaborate on the idea of confronting the shadow. What better place to locate the necessary images for this body of work than in the house of culture and shadows itself, the Museum. With his digital camera in hand Graham walked through the low-lit wings of the Auckland Museum. When he stood before an exquisitely carved Madonna and Child, the work of Te Arawa carver Patoromu Tamatea, he discovered yet another version of the Tar-Baby story.

The museum label next to the carving tells us that Tamatea, a convert to Christianity, had produced his representation of the Madonna and Child in 1845 as a gift for his local Catholic church. When he presented his carving it was rejected by the priests on the grounds of unsuitability.

It is clear that the visual language of Tamatea’s carving was foreign to them, accustomed as they were to painted plaster figurines of the modestly attired Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Tamatea’s Madonna and Child, open mouthed, tongues bared, their bodies adorned in notches and spirals, could not speak their faith to them. Tamatea’s Madonna was their dark shadow, a mystical idol, emblem of all that Christianity had disavowed.

Graham moved slowly around the Museum taking photographs of spirit dolls and decorative shields from Papua New Guinea, Samoan kava bowls, coconut shell cups, cooking bowls and pots from Hawaii and the Solomon Islands, pestles from the Santa Cruz islands, Fijian Goddess figures, carved poupou and a water-worn waka prow from Aotearoa.

The photographs captured the reflection of the halogen lights shining on the glass display cabinets, shadows dropping from the artefacts displayed within, and flashes of light illuminating them with a strange spectral glow. Graham cropped the photographs, retaining the details of light, shadow, and the method of display, and he painted the images in oil on canvas.

We see the dark cavernous interior of a carved heart-shaped mouth, artefacts hovering in space with their shadows pooled beneath them, a shield with a strange face, a spirit doll with bloated arms reflected back to itself in the glass panes of its enclosure, and the face of Tamatea’s baby Jesus leaning outwards from his mother’s arms.

We see The Eternals - Tar-Babies and taboos acknowledged and absorbed.