© Musée Quai Branly & Greg Semu 2007
New Zealand/Samoan artist Greg Semu’s The Battle of the Noble Savages series, was commissioned by Musee du Quai Branly, Paris in 2007. As inaugural artist in residence, Semu was invited to respond to a 2007 Bonded by Blood poster, gifted to Quai Branly, to commemorate the All Black’s 2006 tour of France and 2007 Rugby World Cup. The poster depicts the All Blacks performing their signature haka “Ka Mate Ka Mate” in a mystical tropical rain forest with ancestral Maori figures silhouetted in the foliage.
In an act of subversion, Semu borrowed from and merged the genres of history and portrait painting, staging elaborate fictitious scenes of Maori warriors engaged in battle against a backdrop of native forest, casting Maori as both colonizer and colonized. These orchestrated tableaux are layered with visual and historical references to the New Zealand and European wars of the same period and expose the romanticised veneer of Gustav von Tempsky’s New Zealand Wars paintings.
A “ familiarity with the language of historical and significant moments infuses Greg Semu’s photographs with an evocative power….His borrowing and adaption of historical images and events is endowed with the veneer of reality through the very artifice of his medium.”
David Burnett; APT7; 2012; p196.
The ambitious project involved complex organization and an ensemble of Maori actors . Although the works were shot in one day it involved months of planning, including a month of horse training for one of the actors. Semu’s dedication to historical detail included the costuming borrowed from The River Queen film and authentic 19th century weaponry.
In these works Semu provides a satirical response to the commercial use and objectionable overtones of “the noble savage “ stereotype in depictions of indigenous subjects as “primitive’ and “savage” . Using subversive methodology the artist draws on western iconography and art history to expose the dynamics of indigenous representation in art and the media which continues to have purchase today.
The powerful image of a Maori warrior astride a black, rearing horse quotes Jacques-louis David’s heroic portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte astride a white rearing horse “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass;1805.” Exploiting the classical romanticism of early New Zealand colonial portraiture, Semu’s portraits of Maori hark back to paintings by Louis Steele, Nicholas Chevalier, Walter Wright and Charles F. Goldie.
Greg Semu’s later work addresses cultural displacement in relation to colonization, particularly political and religious colonization. The artist’s work alludes also to the Oceania diaspora, and speaks from personal experience and the history of his people forced to leave traditional places of living, as an experience of cultural and spiritual displacement.