19 Nov 2022

Fatu Feu'u: iconic artist changing the way the Pacific looks

From Saturday Morning, 10:30 am on 19 November 2022

Fatu Feu’u, an elder statesman of Pacific art, was intimidated to meet legendary New Zealand painter Colin McMahon in the late '70s.

"Colin said 'I am waiting for you and your friends to make a contribution to New Zealand art'. It was very humbling to hear that and also challenging in a way."

Now aged 76, the Samoan New Zealand artist was recently named an Arts Foundation Icon. 

Artist Fatu Feu'u

 Fatu Feu’u Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele.

When Feu’u met Colin McCahon had never had a gallery show and was "very shy to say anything about art".

He now works in painting, sculpture, ceramics, weaving and bark cloth - always with the 4,000-year-old tradition of Samoan artmaking in mind.

"I challenge myself to make new things that relate back to the older culture. I believe I'm getting there somehow to bridge that gap and move forward from there."

Feu’u knew he wanted to be a craftsman since childhood when he liked to watch his aunties make tapa, his father make canoes and his uncles build houses with a single bush knife. 

"I thought to myself I would do something similar to that … but using modern tools like chainsaws and things like that."

The letter 'I' that often appears in Feu'u's paintings stands for ifoga - a Samoan cultural practice of reconciliation.

Ifoga is an example of how Samoan cultural history can help guide us in modern life, he says.

"It's very valid that we acknowledge these old ceremonies that can help us in our own life on this planet right now.

"We are living through a very difficult time in this world and I think the power of ifoga is very correct in this time where we should be having conversations with each other, from one nation to another, to reconcile many wrongs. People are fighting, destroying the planet and burning fossil fuels…

"For me, having this ifoga ceremony is a good way of moving forward and replenishing the earth somehow. And not just the earth, our own hearts as people.

"We're mature enough now, educated enough and have enough religion in this world to try and do things like reconciliation rather than damaging the planet."

Fatu Feu’u's work is at the Aotearoa Art Fair in Auckland with Artis Gallery, where he has just presented a new suite of works. 

He has teamed up with optometry company Specsavers to provide a limited edition of eyeglasses featuring designs from one of his paintings, ‘Tagaloa's Dream’. For every pair of glasses sold, $25 goes towards the Fred Hollows Foundation.