Fiji’s beautiful landscapes and seascapes as subjects of traditional art are given a modern twist in the work of Craig Marlow and Aseri Yabakivou.
Contemporary art is flourishing all around the South Pacific and deserves to be more widely known and appreciated by collectors and art lovers. I visited an exhibition late last year at the National Gallery of Victoria, Art of the Pacific. Visiting that exhibition reawakened my interest in two painters I had met several years ago when I lived in Fiji – Craig Marlow and Aseri Yabakivou – whose inspiration draws on traditional Fiji sources and yet is unashamedly modern.
While I lived in Fiji I attended art shows at hotels and galleries on Denarau Island and in Suva. The main art event each year was Art on the Island, organised by the Western Arts and Craft Society. This event brought together artists from all over Fiji – painters, jewellers, ceramic artists and printmakers. At the 2012 exhibition I was completely taken by the first painting by Craig Marlow I saw as I entered the room. Friends and colleagues were surprised when I said immediately, “I want to buy that”, but the work was irresistible due to the striking composition, use of modern materials (acrylic) and choice of subject matter. I met both artists that night and little did I know that I would end up commissioning works from Aseri that I eventually brought back to Australia.
Craig Marlow has been involved with the Western Arts and Crafts Society since its inception, although he lives on the other side of Viti Levu in Suva. He comes from a family of noted local artists with his mother Liebling (she was crowned the first Miss Hibiscus in 1956) and brother Warwick. His family is a real mix of Pacific and British/European roots: German/Samoan and Scottish/Rotuman. When we met at Art on the Island, I was really taken by Craig’s enthusiasm for using modern colours and materials to interpret traditional designs. There is a strong pride in his Pacific roots that permeates his work and some of the more engaging pieces are modern reworkings that link back to indigenous designs and traditional art-making processes.
Craig’s aesthetic style is bold and graphic. His work often features hidden images that the viewer can see with closer examination. Craig’s interpretations of masikesa are well known. They are unashamedly contemporary works of art that fit perfectly with the modern aesthetic of more is less.
The masikesa (Cloth of the Gods) or masi is a prominent traditional design motif that has inspired Craig, as have the flowers and animals and totemic symbolism of the Fiji Islands. Fijian masi is distinctive for its finely detailed and skilfully stencilled geometric motifs. The motifs are carefully printed from the outer edges of the cloth into the centre, the heart of the cloth. Traditional masi is said to embody the spirit of Fijian cultures. The motifs have special meanings and can be read and understood like a story. Craig is a storyteller artist in the tradition of the Fiji masi, even though he uses modern techniques and materials to re-interpret traditional Fiji culture for a contemporary audience.
My kesakesa shows key elements of a traditional Fijian masi but perhaps has more in keeping with the work of an artist such as Piet Mondrian. The square geometry of the painting is depicted with vertical and horizontal lines that create a series of smaller squares filled with different types of shapes. An allusion to the traditional Fijian comb, the i-seru, is depicted around the edge of the main square. What is striking about this work is the bold use of black lines, once again firmly rooted in the tradition, to delineate different sections of the work. There are sixteen smaller squares within the larger square and each of these is different. The artist has subverted the strict geometrical elements of the traditional masi but at the same time used those elements to tie the different parts of the composition together.
Quarter kesa is a further departure from traditional masi style in terms of composition, but in terms of colour, it is closer to the tradition than My kesakesa. This can be seen in the ochre tones used in the triangles and squares. The contrast of the dark and white triangles further enhances the brown tone palette. The use of the i-seru motif around the border demonstrate the artist’s confidence to adopt and adapt traditional designs and his ability to re-interpret in a striking manner. Other works such as Vaka III and Island Blessings depart more formally from the masikesa tradition but still show Craig’s interest in strong geometrical compositions.
The work I mentioned above that I wanted to buy immediately is titled Family. It is typically strong geometrically and demonstrates a very skilful use of line and infill. The painting shows a grouping of three birds of a species endemic to the island of Rotuma – Rotuma myzomela – and classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The most striking feature of these birds is their bright scarlet belly, feathers from which are used in traditional Rotuman dress. The artist has clustered the family of three among native vegetation and used contrasts between the black and red to emphasise the distinctive belly feature. The white lines, although not at first an obvious part of the composition, are a visual device that creates interest on what is a two-dimensional plane. Craig has skilfully created the lines using the colour of the ground on the canvas rather than applying paint on top of the browns that depict the vegetation. Another captivating feature of this painting is the eyes of each bird: the eyeballs seem convex and accentuate the single white dot of the iris, as though the birds are watching you. This painting reflects Craig’s concern for environmental issues.
Aseri is a self-taught artist who lives in Lautoka. He’s been a member of the Western Arts and Craft Society for many years and is a frequent exhibitor at its events. Aseri trained as a primary-schoolteacher and taught for more than ten years. In between teaching duties he worked as a stained-glass artist at Jack’s of Fiji in Nadi. Like many artists throughout history his income doesn’t come from painting alone. When we first met in 2012, he was teaching art at the Nadi Airport Primary School and he also ran children’s Saturday arts classes at the Society. Additional income to support himself comes from face-painting during the Fijian fair season.
Aseri’s artistic style is difficult to categorise exactly. To say it is naïve, in the positive sense, does not do justice to his creativity but there is a certain simplicity in the rendering of landscapes, flowers and seascapes. He is one of the best painters of coconut trees I have encountered. The detail with which he depicts the ringed bark is very tactile, and the dark highlights serve to accentuate the gentle curve of the trunk. His use of three or four colours is a lesson in using a limited palette to create a sense of depth and texture. Aseri’s use of colour is very striking and reminds me artists such as David Hockney and Henri Matisse, whose bold approach to colour is both striking and, on further viewing, subtle.
I commissioned Aseri to paint a number of works. The first was a portrait of our cat, Frank. I adopted the cat from some colleagues and since he was a Fijian cat it seemed appropriate to depict him sitting on the beach. The work is a large-scale portrait with Frank perched on some rocks gazing directly at the viewer. The edge of the water and rocks is fringed with different varieties of local flora such as orchids, frangipani and ferns (flowers are a frequent motif in Aseri’s work). The setting is not anywhere specific in Fiji – a deliberate decision on the part of the artist –but it is unmistakeably Fijian. Some friends think the background shows Beqa Island.
The second commission I gave Aseri was to paint a series of flowers in my garden. He produced nine panels each depicting a separate type of flower. While we talked about the commission we walked around the garden and looked at various flowers such as hibiscus, gardenia, banana, bougainvillea and heliconium. Each of the paintings shows great attention to botanical detail, as in, for example the flowers of the “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” shrub, and yet is a free interpretation of the flowers’ natural setting.
Viti means strong in Fijian. It can be used to describe strength in the physical sense – think of a Fijian 7s player –but also intensity, and that is how I would use the phrase to describe some of the characteristics of Aseri’s work. The intensity of colour in his flower paintings produces an almost hyper-real quality to the image. Look for example at the banana flower painting. The purple is very strong, much stronger than in reality but this distinction between colour in reality and colour in the mind and work of the artist is one of the things that give Aseri’s works a visual charm that is arresting and engaging. One feels oneself being drawn more and more into the colour.
The third commissioned work was a landscape looking towards the Sleeping Giant from the garden of my house in Martintar. The painting is two metres long, similar in size to the Portrait of Frank. The foreground of the painting is a rich tapestry of flowers which give the impression the viewer is standing right in the garden looking at the Giant. The massive shape of the Giant’s body, somewhat unusually depicted in grey (another example of contrasting use of colour), merges with the escarpment below. The viewer can’t quite see where the escarpment ends and the Giant begins. This is what I like so much about Aseri’s work. This playfulness in using different elements of the composition to create visual effects that reveal themselves only after detailed scrutiny is one of the things I like so much about Aseri’s work.
Two contemporary artists painting in very different styles and yet drawing on the rich natural and artistic patrimony of Fiji. Both artists are well known in Fiji through exhibitions and art prizes and competitions. Craig’s work can be seen in resorts around the country and his paintings have been presented by the Fijian Government to visiting dignitaries. Both artists through their work give us a unique interpretation of the visual heritage of the Fiji Islands. Both contribute, again in different ways, to encourage children to create art, that itself, I hope, will one day help preserve Fijian culture and traditions.
Story by Anthony Bailey, photographs courtesy of Anthony Bailey.