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Luke Willis Thompson in Auckland

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While looking at this system of brutal exploitation and denial of basic dignity (even after death), Thompson's project also focuses on the very contemporary theme of migrancy, the search for work and safety for one's family - the struggle some communities have for survival. It is part of a wider global vision currently prevalent within contemporary art, but here looking at Pacific history in a subtle way that exploits the poetics and history of the modernist white cube.



Luke Willis Thompson
Sucu Mate / Born Dead


29 January - 27 February 2016

Across the polished, bone coloured, concrete floor of the Hopkinson Mossman marches a line of deeply weathered tombstones, facing east: nine thin eroded slabs, battered with striations from adjacent vegetation, wearing traces of white paint and lichen. These dilapidated headstones, all blank (apart from some faint traces of marks on one), come from the Old Balawa Estate Company Cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji. This graveyard featured in a work that Thompson made for a photography group show (about documentation), called In Spite of Ourselves, at AUT in 2012 and which toured to the Dowse.

The headstones were discovered by the artist when he visited the graveyard to clean his grandmother’s grave (she being an indigenous Fijian), and were found in a separate section reserved for indentured migrants (mostly Chinese, and a few Japanese or Indian) brought out to work for the sugar company. Buried without even the dignity of a name, these labourers (their lives) are generally ignored and forgotten. There are no cemetery records, though perhaps there might have been - for there was an office fire that destroyed a lot of documentation. The Fijian government - in co-ordination with the Fijian Museum - gave permission for these tombstones to be temporarily removed, and so after touring they will be returned and reinstalled on the cemetery site.

Here in Auckland, because they are elegantly presented as a diagonal line striding across the gallery’s cement floor, they dramatically contrast with the white walls. (In Lautoka the concrete headstones were painted with whitewash every ten years.) The show has a minimalist look as if laid out by Donald Judd or Carl Andre. The mood, understandably for anybody who is observant, is profoundly damning of exploitation, tragedy and suffering, evoking imagined, untold stories behind each ‘marker’. These workers were kept constantly in debt; we are talking about a form of slavery.

While looking at this system of brutal exploitation and denial of basic dignity (even after death), Thompson’s project also focuses on the very contemporary theme of migrancy, the search for work and safety for one’s family - the struggle some communities have for survival. It is part of a wider global vision currently prevalent within contemporary art, but here looking at Pacific history in a subtle way that exploits the poetics and history of the modernist white cube. Sucu Mate / Born Dead is a better work than (say) the project that won Thompson the Walters Prize because it is not entangled in contradictory variations of Duchampian readymade. Its ideational construction process is much clearer; its emotional impact accordingly more powerful.

John Hurrell

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This Discussion has 8 comments.


Roger Boyce, 11:15 a.m. 2 February, 2016

I will, no doubt, regret commenting here. But it seems I can't escape the dictates of my own troublesome nature.

The art world, as most know, is an exceedingly small, and often vindictive, place - a place scrupulously unwelcoming of analysis or criticism. Criticism, in particular, which might serve as an impediment to its primarily commercial imperatives. Late capitalist imperative conventionally wrapped in fine, theoretical, aesthetic, or cultural raiment. Much as nation states wrap themselves in patriotic mythos.

I feel familially entitled to speak to the class origins of the anonymously commemorative funerary objects, physically appropriated from the Fijian 'Potter's field', and pressed into aesthetic employ by artist Luke Willis Thompson. Used, so to speak, to aesthetically furnish Hopkinson Mossman's relatively elite "-modernist white cube -".

My mother and her extended family were indigenous folk, formerly indentured - on what may well have been their own ancestral lands - on early industrial cotton farms. Industrial/agricultural operations which flourished for a time, following European colonization, of the Missouri River basin.

Like the forgotten workers on the Old Balawa Estate Company, in Fiji, my mother and her extended family were "-kept constantly in debt-" and thus were little more than economic slaves... as in Tennessee Ernie Ford's infamous lyric, who owed their "- soul to the company store -".

Like the indentured sugarcane workers of the Old Balawa Estate Company, a great many cotton 'hands' lived, worked, died and were buried on these company-owned, post-colonial, plantations.

Fijian Government & Fijian Museum permission notwithstanding, I struggle to see how displacement and re-contextualization of the headstones in question does much more than deepen the considerable indignity, already heaped on those who were buried - anonymously or not - beneath them.

I assume (relying on the article's account) the nameless souls, previously laid to rest beneath the relocated headstones, are now without both name and headstone? Nameless or not I would suggest that property rights, and permissions, if any - where these stones are concerned - rests (figuratively and literally speaking) with those still occupying the forlorn plots. The ground these headstones were plucked from?

Whatever the conceptual conceits of Sucu Mate / Born Dead - it seems the grave markers' physical and conceptual movement, from one physical/cultural purpose (demotic grave marker) to another (high-end objet d'art), carries on the sort of 'western' subordination, trade-displacement, and extrajudicial 'aestheticization' of cultural and class specific objects ... albeit intellectually laundered by the exhibition's apparently declared, and conceptually 'virtuous', intent of supposedly "-damning of exploitation-".

(to be contd.)

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Roger Boyce, 11:16 a.m. 2 February, 2016


I return again and again to telling descriptive tropes at review's beginning - Such as: "deeply weathered", "thin eroded", "battered with striations", "traces of white paint and lichen". This is the sort of accurate, but re-defining, language one finds attached to antiques, ethnic collectibles and other fine fetish objects, circulating around the globe.

Despite the exhibition's heart-on-sleeve intent to testify to, or memorialize, the "-ignored and forgotten -" former 'owners' of the stones, that the project's demonstrated movement, of the objects, from original site, category, and purpose ... to a new, relatively alien 'footing'. To an apotheosizing white cube, where the headstones are essentially re-purposed by context (with its inescapably interpretive contributions), into aesthetic and art-historically captured things ("-minimalist look as if laid out by Donald Judd or Carl Andre -") is a legitimately questionable exercise.

The fact that Luke Willis Thompson is of "-indigenous Fijian-" extraction does not exculpate. Most relocated objects in ethnographic collections (public and private) found their way there, legitimately or otherwise, at the hands of (according to my former African Art History Prof.) young men affiliated with the object's originating nation or ethnic grouping.

I can just imagine what my mother or aunties might think or say, about my highfalutin ways, were I to consider relocating - for aesthetic, conceptual, or career enhancing reasons - artfully weathered headstones from 'potter's fields' located on the cotton estates they and their their ancestors once lived, toiled and died upon.

For further reference readers might wish to peruse a seminal series of exchanges ("Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief"in Artforum) between Thomas McEvilley, William Ruben and Kirk Varnedoe. While not specifically applicable to Sucu Mate / Born Dead, I think there are dynamic parallels one might find instructive.

What I've opined here is, obviously,subjective. So saying, I have little to no time, or temperamental, inclination to engage in lengthy debate of points forwarded.

So, I'll advise y'all - as Roosevelt once (apocryphally) advised WPA workers, who were asking for more shovels - those wanting more from me - please, instead, 'lean on one another'.

Be Well

 In reply

John Hurrell, 8:34 p.m. 2 February, 2016

Linda Tyler has pointed out to me that the Chinese usually exhume the bodies of expats and send the bones home to China for reburial. This changes the meaning of the headstones as the graves would be seen as temporary. Whether the friends of the dead could afford this shipping is the obvious question.

Roger Boyce, 9:52 p.m. 2 February, 2016

I don't doubt the veracity of Tyler's information - re the cultural practice of Chinese nationals repatriating remains of their fellows.

I do, however, question the statistical accuracy of the second paragraph of the review, which states there were probably only "-a few -" indentured Indians in a graveyard specifically set aside for dead indentured-laborers. The 'Indians in Fiji' Wikipedia page claims over 60,000 Indians arrived in Fiji as indentured sugar cane workers.

But now I feel as if I've been drawn into an factual nitpicking exercise.

My earlier remarks were not so much concerned with what you refer to as the "- meaning of the headstones-" (whatever that means, exactly) as with the propriety of culturally appropriating and re-purposing the working poor's ("temporary" or not)gravestones as objet d'art. Whatever politically 'virtuous' conceptual claims are held aloft as justification for such an endeavor.

Imagine equivalently worn, unreadable, headstones from Auckland's Symonds Street Cemetery being transported (whatever the 'official' permissions) across town and exhibited as minimalist art-object arrangements in an upmarket white cube. Would a conceptual exegesis - claiming to honor the unknown dead of colonial Auckland satisfy the bourgeois.

Or is it only the remains of the underclasses which may, with impunity, be disturbed and rearranged, to serve as cultural novelties for the cultural cognoscenti?

John Hurrell, 10:05 p.m. 2 February, 2016

Roger, you are pushing your luck by comparing the discussion with the famously acrimonious Rubin / McEvilley ‘Primitivism’ debate from the 80s. Weathered blank headstones can’t be correlated with religious artefacts (like central African ‘fetish’ sculpture) designed for a particular efficacy where ‘power’ is channelled. There is no comparison. It's absurd.

Roger Boyce, 12:06 a.m. 3 February, 2016

Prima facie absurd?

By referring to the infamous Thomas McEvilley, William Ruben and Kirk Varnedoe exchanges, John, I was hardly suggesting there was equivalence between (say) Nkisi figures and what you've descriptively (and subordinately) reduced to " - Weathered blank headstones -".

Please note I claim not specific applicability, but dynamic parallel.

The parallels - particularly from McEvilley's articulated point of view (in the original Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief argument) - lie with a displaced cultural artifact's originally intended use ... and the unseemliness, or intellectual dishonesty, of willfully stripping, or denying, such objects their religious or 'magical' utility. Lies with the arbitrary relocation of said objects into the realm of dispassionate, art historical, art-for-art's-sake aesthetics. Which is what, for the most part, Luke Willis Thompson has seen fit to do with Sucu Mate / Born Dead.

Headstones - while, obviously, not as highly charged and fantastically layered as central African fetish figures - are (sensu stricto) correlative, devotional, objects (and by generous definition religious fetishes) fashioned for the purpose of focusing, channeling, encouraging, or producing, elevated states of devotion, mindfulness and reverence - as visible, concrete, places to summon, so to speak, the departed.

Given your earlier descriptive remarks are accurate, the grave markers are 'remarkably' patinated. And it is this, their time-accrued patina, and their embelmatic, minimalist, shape that lends them the physical 'presence' that Luke Willis Thompson takes and re-employs, to his own ends. Appropriates, with parallel disregard for their original ownership and intended cultural utility.

I would suggest that the same could hardly be done with higher-class, bourgeois, devotional objects. It is only the disenfranchised, the powerless, the culturally colonized who can, with impunity, have their artifacts appropriated and re-purposed as (and I repeat myself) aesthetic novelties for cultural cognoscenti.

I really must now desist from further rejoinder. But I do certainly appreciate your observations and arguments.

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Scott Hamilton, 2:02 p.m. 9 February, 2016

I don't want to get into the debate Roger has raised, but I think there's a real historical connection between the American slavery he talks about and the establishment of indentured labour in Fiji.

As the African-American scholar Gerald Horne shows in his book The White Pacific, after their defeat and ruin in the American Civil War a significant number of Confederate farmers and former slave owners migrated to the Pacific, where some of them took part in the trade of indentured labourers to Queensland and Fiji and others set up plantations in those place.

Queensland became known as the 'Louisiana of the south', and in Fiji the former Confederates set up a branch of the Ku Klux Klan that terrorised locals and contributed to King Cakobau's decision to cede power to the British empire.

New Zealand was very involved in the Pacific slave trade, and slaves worked here in both of flax mills and in the homes of the wealthy.

It is good to see artists like Luke Willis Thompson and also John Vea, whom I have written about at this site, dealing with a sad and often unacknowledged aspect of Pacific history.

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Scott Hamilton, 2:19 p.m. 9 February, 2016

Luke Willis Thompson's new work might also make us reflect on a little-known piece of our military history. In 1920, in response to a request from Britain, New Zealand troops were sent to Fiji to help put down a strike by mostly Indian indentured labourers.

New Zealand's waterside workers were dubious about letting the ship that carried the troops sail, but eventually cooperated. The troops opened fire on a crowd of protesting Indo-Fijians, and seem to have killed at least one of them.

You don't hear about it on Anzac Day, but less than a century ago New Zealand's army helped to put down a slave rebellion.

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