Lounge Room Tribalism
Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland
21 April – 3 June 2012

Essay excerpt:
Lounge Room Tribalism
by Graham Fletcher


April 2002

As a favour for a friend, I was asked to collect a painting owned by ‘Mrs. B’ who lived in the suburb of Mount Eden and to deliver the work to Lopdell House Gallery in Titirangi for its inclusion in an exhibition. A simple enough task. I arrived on time at Mrs. B’s house, which was a well-kept bungalow in a pleasant street. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by an elderly lady and her two dogs. Mrs. B was in her late seventies, diminutive in stature and frail in health; characteristics that I would also attribute to her dogs.

On entering Mrs. B’s home I felt somewhat apprehensive; a peculiar sense that things beyond the threshold were not quite what they seemed. As we made our way through the hallway I could only describe the transition from passage to living room as a kind of interior eclipse; light became dark, sound became silence, and the familiar scents of the exterior world receded into a cocktail of nicotine and mothballs. Once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, I was confronted by a strange yet astonishing sight of all manner of ‘things’.

The room was brimming with paintings, sculptures, prints and ethnographic artefacts—all painstakingly arranged to achieve maximum consideration for anyone lucky enough to be invited within the inner sanctum. Such a room, abundant with mystery and the marvellous, would require several visits to grasp the entirety of the collection—but I recall a number of fantastic folk-art paintings and a fine collection of Papua New Guinea shields among many other ethnographic relics.

Before retrieving the painting, Mrs. B, herself an artist, spoke at length on other contemporary works within her collection, which I found fascinating. But my attention was ultimately captured by her lounge and its odd, yet complementary, mixture of the contemporary and the sacred. Mrs. B passed away later that year and her collection has either been kept by the family, entrusted to a museum, or sold and absorbed into other private collections, but in many ways it has never left my mind.

September 2006
As part of my doctoral studies I travelled abroad on a research-gathering exercise to see first-hand the latest trends in contemporary art and design coming out of Europe. I visited many galleries and prominent museums in London, Berlin and Paris, as well as the newly opened Musee du Quai Branley and was inspired by the very same ethnographic artefacts that influenced the works of notable artists such as Picasso, Matisse and the Surrealists. This would have been more than enough stimuli to get me started on a new artwork trajectory, but the best was yet to come.

While wandering randomly within the Centre Pompidou I stumbled across an installation of objects collected by André Breton. It was like nothing I had seen before, except, on a much reduced scale, in the lounge room of Mrs. B. It was made up of a vast collection of 263 objects ranging from tribal artefacts, natural objects, antique furniture, stuffed animals, unusual trinkets, paintings, drawings, sculptures and more. The accompanying wall plaque revealed that Breton had collected over 5,300 pieces of which the Pompidou managed to salvage one complete wall from his apartment for permanent display.

This cluttered ensemble, typical of the sort of displays within the homes of many Surrealists (and somewhat reminiscent of Renaissance Europe ‘Wunderkammer’ rooms) enabled Breton and other Surrealists to arrange and rearrange whole new worlds in the shape of their choosing. Their creations were bent towards manipulating, organising and ultimately domesticating the unknown, the shocking and the ‘primitive’. The seemingly haphazard arrangement of Surreal objects is defined by Breton as le hasard objectif (‘objective chance’)—the point of intersection between inner desires and external reality.(1)

But what baffled me about these ‘new worlds’ was what I perceived to be the harmonious dialogue between such disparate objects. Elizabeth Cowling in her essay, ‘An Other Culture’ (1978), suggests that the Surrealists’ eclectic tastes belied an underlying logic—‘guided by a consistent aesthetic at all times.’(2)

This raised another question for me as to what guided Breton to place a particular object in its ‘logical’ position within the collective? Apparently, Breton, on acquiring a new item, would contemplate its placement within the ‘new world’ for days. Jean-Louis Bédouin described a typical occasion when, with a newly acquired New Guinea sculpture, Breton ‘had “walked it around” for a few days, from a shelf to a table, from one corner of the studio to the other, looking for the inevitable place that was destined for it.’(3) So, these spaces went through a process of continual transformation by the inclusion of new acquisitions, of which the tribal artefact was revered for its mystical, spiritual and supernatural properties. From this assemblage of many bizarre and wondrous items, the Surrealist could bring the collectivity, the many parts of the collection, into focus by reorganising and transforming the objects within the limits of the collection and thus creating a continuous system that opened up possibilities of interculturalism, whether intentional or not.

May 2007
I have been fascinated by the work of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) ever since I visited his home at Vailima, Samoa in 1996. Like many tourists before me, I trekked up Mount Vaea to see his tomb, not out of a need for homage or voyeuristic curiosity, but more as a means to gain an insight into the writer, to see what he saw, and to understand what inspired him to live out the last years of his short life on a small Pacific island. Stevenson is renowned for such classics as Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it was a novella entitled The Beach of Falesá (1892) that captured my imagination and provided me with another early example of combinatorial thinking.

In this text, Stevenson draws on his observations of the colonial culture and the practices of traders in the Samoan Islands to comment on the dynamic interactions between ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised.’(4) The story begins when the English trader John Wiltshire arrives at the South Sea Island of Falesá to manage a trading station, but finds that his rival competitor on the island, the devious Mr Case, is determined to spoil his business. Wiltshire realises that Case has seduced the Islanders by playing the role of sorcerer and exploiting their superstitious beliefs through ‘sleight-of-hand magic tricks’ with cards and coins, and by taking small bands of followers to a ‘haunted’ cave that he has equipped with musical contraptions and carved idols.

Case’s cave lies deep within the forest and is surrounded by a variety of other creations. These creations include a Tyrolean (or Aeolian) harp made from candle boxes, with stretched banjo strings, that hangs between trees and emits an ‘unnatural’ sound when the wind blows. He also suspended figures with strange painted faces, with eyes and teeth made from shells, that wear bright clothes that move in the wind. Case installed a shining face covered in luminous paint that is hung inside the cave, which Wiltshire describes as ‘big and ugly, like a pantomime mask... the brightness of it waxed and dwindled, and at times... smoked’.(5)

Case’s ‘lair’ is clearly one of artifice, yet it is convincing enough to deceive the indigenous people of Falesá by appropriating their own beliefs and traditions and turning these structures against them. Even the pragmatic Wiltshire is momentarily fooled by the supernaturally charged props in Case’s lair, but quickly realises that this is no ancient sacred site but a ‘man-made folly.’ But rather than destroy it at that moment, he decides to expose Case’s deceit in order to sever Case’s control over the Islanders and end his monopoly on Island trade. Ultimately, Case is shot dead and his lair destroyed with dynamite, and as a result Wiltshire’s business and family life prospers.

Contrary to common colonial imaginings of the Pacific Islands as a utopian place of opportunity, abundance and pleasure, Stevenson presents us with a fictitious microcosm from which we can consider the realities of colonialism and the impact of cross-cultural mimicry. The Beach of Falesá is a broader metaphor for the kind of destabilising relationship that Stevenson observed between cohabitating natives and foreigners during his residence in Samoa.(6)

Correlations could be made between Case’s lair and Breton’s collection where juxtaposition and recontextualisation of their chosen objects create destabilising environments. However, it seems that the Surrealist and the ‘crooked’ coloniser employ different tactics to target their ideal audience. Case appropriates ‘primitive’ forms in order to insert himself into an existing system of beliefs, thereby enabling him to manipulate it with the intention of alienating the Islanders from their own land. The Surrealists, on the other hand, use the ‘primitive’ to challenge the familiar—‘provoking the irruption of otherness—the unexpected.’(7)

February 2010
Inspired by the Surrealists’ obsession for collecting what they perceived to be the curious and exotic, I undertook a similar practice in gathering a variety of ethnographic objects to be used primarily as a visual resource for my own work. This collection grew steadily between 2006 and 2009. During this period I began to appreciate the physical and spiritual qualities of these objects. After reading Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá, this collection of objects then led me to create my own version of Case’s lair, and upon gathering the accumulated materials in my studio, I fashioned a vast group of idols made from clay, coconut fibre, shells, feathers, wire, polystyrene and other items. Each figure was then doused in wax and coated in thick black paint to resemble the dark patina associated with many older tribal artefacts.

My research had been primarily based within the world of (ethnographic) objects, and it is these objects that led me to consider developing the ‘lounge room tribal’ paintings. Here, the medium of painting offered me the freedom and immediacy to create imaginative combinations within a borderland world. In keeping with the Surrealist philosophy of ‘objective chance’, I supplemented my own collection with a variety of images of ethnographic objects and modern interiors from wide-ranging sources in order to create new intercultural spaces. These new works were to be set within lounge rooms of the 1950s and 1960s; a period in history that exemplified trends in Western materialism and excess. The lounge room imagery for this body of work was primarily sourced from periodicals of the same era as well as from design books and various online resources.

The gathering of visual information on ethnographic artefacts was more widespread and encompassed text books, museums, private collections, online resources, periodicals, auction catalogues and other ephemera. From this heterogeneous collection, I chose certain ethnographic images for their idiosyncrasies and ‘auratic’ qualities, to be strategically inserted within representations of domestic environments, thereby creating New Worlds built up from the cultural fragments of the Old. These ‘lounge room tribal’ paintings portray spaces without people, but through their combinations of cultural elements—from the highly spiritual to tourist kitsch—they talk about aspects of authenticity, cultural interaction and the assimilation of indigenous peoples within the Western landscape. The paintings themselves become a point of intersection between the West and its Others.

Come in and take a seat.

Graham Fletcher
May 2012

1. Elza Adamowicz, Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 12.

2. Elizabeth Cowling, ‘An Other Culture’. (Supplementary Essay) Dada and Surrealism Reviewed. By Dawn Ades (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978) 458.

3. Krzysztof Fijałkowski, ‘“Un salon au fond d’un lac”: The Domestic Spaces of Surrealism’. Surrealism and Architecture. Ed. Thomas Mical (London and New York: Routledge, 2005) 19.

4. Robert Hillier, The South Seas Fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1989) 166.

5. Robert L. Stevenson, ‘The Beach of Falesá’ [1892]. Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘The Beach of Falesá’. Ed. Barry Menikoff (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984) 169.

6. Barry Menikoff, Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘The Beach of Falesá’: a Study in Victorian Publishing with the Original Text (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984) 4.

7. James Clifford, ‘On Ethnographic Surrealism’. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct.,1981) 562.