Back home in Auckland after fifteen years away, artist Rosanna Raymond was unpacking boxes she’d left in storage when inspiration for her next work arrived. As she gingerly removed a fine bone china tea set left to her by her grandmother, she thought; “better have a high tea ceremony…with savages!”
Since 2010, Rosanna Raymond has been creating art under the name of the SaVAge K'lub, a multi-disciplinary installation and performance vehicle built to discuss ideas of space, hospitality, reciprocity and what it might mean to be a savage in the 21st century. Their latest performance, a tea ceremony at Auckland's St Kevin's Arcade, invited the public to join her and a tribe of artists to share fancy teas, cakes, dancing, poetry and performance of all kinds. In Rosanna's words, the aim was to 'institute the non-cannibalistic cognitive consumption of others.'
The SaVAge K’lub began for Rosanna while on an artist’s residency in Canada when she was introduced to the Burnett Collection at the University of British Columbia. Frank Burnett was a 19th century ethnologist who collected artefacts from around the South Pacific. In the collection, Rosanna found an invitation issued to Frank inviting him to speak about his travels at a private Gentleman’s club. The name of the club? The Savage Club.
And I thought “Savage Club? What is this Savage Club?” So I Googled them and found that they were still going today.
The Savage Club was founded in London in 1857 for gentleman with interests in fine arts, literature, Christianity and consuming food and alcohol. Members over the years have included children’s writer J.M.Barrie, poet Dylan Thomas, explorer Captain Scott as well as King Edward VII and Prince Phillip. The Savage Club model and a Freemason off-shoot spread around the English-speaking world and several are still in operation in New Zealand.
‘It sounded amazing,’ says Rosanna, ‘until I realised that it was men only and still is! So I thought if you can’t beat them, you make your own one.’
And that is exactly what Rosanna has done, but with a difference.
I put the “Va” into “Savage".
Rosanna’s SaVAge K’lub explores the Samoan concept of the Va; a relational space between people and place, including ideas of hospitality, obligation and expectation. With this in mind, Rosanna created the K’lub to be a very open-ended entity, able to accommodate performances, installations, exhibitions anywhere she might be and to bring together artists and audiences for fun, feasting and discussions about the experience of living and working under a colonial legacy.
‘The SaVAge K’Lub is where I get to play with people; I invite people in, we have mad discussions, we eat food, we get drunk and be merry…but we mainly bring people together to enjoy each other’s company and stimulate each other.’
For the High Tea performance, Rosanna invited a variety of artists to take part and as a provocation asked them to visit the Green Dolphin Bookstore in St Kevin’s Arcade, choose a book and then create a performance in response. Interdisciplinary artist Reina Sutton decided upon an interactive piece where she offered shells to the audience to place on a piece of adornment worn around her neck. Performance artist Jess Holly Bates staged a ‘Queer Pussy Riot activation” by dancing in an antique wedding dress while wearing a balaclava, a large false moustache and a seven metre-long merkin. Rosanna herself found an old-time song book with some questionable subject matter.
‘I found the music sheet for Little Brown Gal, in a little grass skirt, in a little grass shack in Hawaii. So I thought, y’know, I haven’t brought my little brown gal out for a while. So that was my response. I’ve also been trying to encourage people to bring their own regalia. It’s a special time, wear something special to you, whether it’s something your mother gave you, whether it’s your best piece of pounamu, your Taonga…it’s time to bring it out!’
Now that the High Tea is over, Rosanna and her K’lub members are turning their attention to the next thing on their plate. She has been selected to represent New Zealand at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. The focus once more is upon activating a shared space for hospitality and interaction and bringing together the old and the new. To achieve this, their first job when they get there is to build themselves a K’lub room. As Rosanna says, what is a K’lub without a K’lub room?
‘The K’lub room is the performance residue. Because when we’re gone the space will be quite dormant, but people will still be able to enjoy the beautiful pieces we’ve made, the visual art work, and also the museum pieces and see how they sit side by side.’