Samoan Art & Artists: O Measina a Samoa
by Sean Mallon
University of Hawai’i Press
Review by Anne O’Rourke
“Samoan Art and Artists” looks generally at art in the Samoan culture. Sean Mallon has chosen to look at traditional arts and how they have moved into contemporary Samoan society both in Samoa and abroad.
There are some interesting ideas in Samoan society and its art. Throughout time, the Samoans have been able to “pick and choose” what they want to take from other societies without really compromising their own ideas. Even through a time of missionary immigration and teaching, the Samoans have been able to keep their identities. This is unusual, apparently, of the Islanders of the Pacific. This book looks at what that identity is through its arts. Some of the arts – such as canoe building and “fala” (house) building were dying out as the artists died, but have experienced resurgence as Samoans integrate these things back into their lives.
The book covers many varied arts: canoe and house building, bark cloth (“siapo”) making, weaving, woodwork, tattoo, oratory, theatre, painting, photography and filmmaking, storytelling and literature, costumes, adornments, tourist art and music and dance. Many of these are old, traditional arts and some are more contemporary by nature (like filmmaking). The Samoan people embrace their art to tell their story through whatever medium they choose. One of the best examples is of house building. At a resort in Upolu, new “fala” were built in the traditional way with mostly traditional materials. At the University of Samoa, a traditional building was constructed of new materials, but in the traditional way. There are also many buildings overseas that carry a Samoan influence with them. Another quick example is of an ankle bracelet that is made of cotton and bottle caps instead of shells and coconut fiber.
The author breaks the book down by the arts he covers and gives an overview of the art. Mallon goes on to explain where it came from and who influenced it (Fijians, for example). Then he talks about how the art has changed with time and other influences. For many of the sections, he has some interesting first-person stories from contemporary artists as well as general information on the art in contemporary society in Samoa and in Samoan communities abroad (mainly New Zealand). This format works quite well – it is easy to follow, even for someone like me who knows nothing about Samoan society. It can be difficult to follow the pictures as they are often not near the text that relates to them. Also, I kept getting confused with the Samoan words that were used. All in all it was an informative book.