Edith Amituanai is an Auckland-based artist whose photography I really admire. She’s still a really young artist and has achieved so much and consistently makes really interesting work. I can’t really help but view her work through the lens of an immigrant. Although I am not Samoan, I obviously come from a culture that is pretty different, both historically and in more contemporary times, to the English-based culture of non-immigrant New Zealand that dominates here, so as I was reading I came across a particular series of photographs she had exhibited, that sounded really interesting and relevant. It’s a body of work called La Fine Del Mondo that examines the immigrant experience in New Zealand.
Her work on this (which through the magic of the internet I’ve been able to view, despite not seeing it in person) as well as what she talked about in various interviews, really ~*spoke~*~ to me. I feel like she’s one of the few people who make art about things that truly matter to people, like on an instinctive level. And those things are about the concept of home and community and how a person or family creates a home, especially when they’ve moved away to a new country, where their cultural practices cannot be taken for granted anymore because they’ve been eye-dropped into a bucket full of English (Western?) water. And then of course, what happens when this move is not voluntary, but forced and how does a family negotiate this new life in that context and when it’s perhaps not permanent?
In 2009 Ms. Amituanai first exhibited La Fine del Mondo at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington. This is a body of work documenting the settlement of the Lai family, recently arrived from Myanmar, into their new lives in New Zealand and their new home in West Auckland. It is a series of photographic portraits of the Lai family showing their efforts in negotiating a new house, school, culture and life, and was complemented by archival footage about a wider immigrant experience in New Zealand, including clips of Polish children who came to NZ as World War II refugees, as well as a TV3 news story on the Tampa asylum seekers, who had just become New Zealand citizens.
I really liked what Ms. Amituanai talked about in relation to La Fine Del Mondo in an interview here, and in particular I was struck by this idea of the common immigrant experience in New Zealand (which I guess must be similar in other countries) and what affects people the most and the things they think about while creating a new home in a foreign land. She saw that a lot of what she had been exploring in her work through her own Samoan – New Zealand upbringing and culture appeared in the experiences of the Lai family – “It occurred to me that many things that I had been looking at in my own cultural milieu could be found in other immigrant cultures”.
And in particular, this statement really spoke to me:
“The adjustment to a new environment’s climate, language, new systems and finding new communities is one major effort. While another is not always being fully accepted by the new homeland. Also the experience of feeling like being in two places simultaneously, one in the new adopted country and the other placed in the ancestral homeland seems to be quite common.”
I also really like how intimate her portraits are. I think her curiosity about people really comes across, and also a kind of realisation that she really tries to understand her subjects and never puts anyone on the spot. I also like the domestic scale of her work and how nicely they could fit in someone’s suburban home, even in the homes she depicts. There’s a nice feeling of a family snapshot in a lot of her work, and this is tempered by the fact that they are obviously works of art for the public, so there’s always a kind of shift between the two when you’re looking at them (especially in real life), which is really satisfying.
Also, this is much more superficial, but I really love that feeling of driving around at night when it’s quiet and people’s curtains are open and you get quick little flashes of their living rooms through the window as you drive by – a little whirl of warm light and things hanging on walls if their lamps are on, or flickering blue colour and little lightning bolt snippets of furniture if they’re just watching tv, that let you see for a short time how that person or that family lives their life, and the commonplace things they’re doing in that particular moment. That little secretive thrill, a flashing spy feeling, is what I love in some of Edith Amituanai’s photographs also.