Thursday 20 September 2022, we arrived in Birmingham under the rain and entered the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) to take shelter but more importantly to see the latest occurrence of the SaVĀge K'lub, the reason we came to Birmingham. This K'lub was created for the Fierce Festival and more specifically for the Healing Gardens of Bab (referring to the hanging gardens of Babylon) which "is an artistic response to our colonial history that celebrates what [the British] Empire tried (and failed) to stamp out".1 Healing Gardens of Bab is a space of queer celebration where "performances, events and artworks [...] uplift expressions of queerness globally, through joyous spectacles and participatory events."2 It is within this space that Rosanna Raymond and Jaimie Waititi present the inaugural Birmingham SaVĀge K'lubroom.
At the end of the industrial gallery, a central space of the museum, can be found SaVĀge K'lub: Vā Tamatea. The entrance is topped with clubs, fans, a tapa and is flanked by two banners that introduce the K'lub and its members.
Display case with a Fijian sculpture from the collections of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, a photo album and a video of VOU dance. SaVĀge K'lub Tamatea, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph: Clémentine Debrosse
As we enter, we are faced with two display cases, two paintings, as well as the costume of one of the K'lub members, hanging against the wall after having been worn the previous week during performances and actiVĀtion of the space. The room is lined with colourful wallpaper reminiscent of the interior of the gentlemen's clubs. With its background adorned with Fijian tapa patterns, the display case on the right features a sculpture from Fiji placed on a pedestal which is itself decorated with hibiscus flower patterns. The sculpture has been dressed for the occasion in armbands and anklets made of raffia to complement her outfit, which already includes a skirt and necklace. Opposite her is an open photo album showing two photographs of Pacific landscapes, and a screen showing a filmed performance by the Fijian dance group VOU. Through this installation, the sculpture, which comes from the BMAG collections, is actiVĀted. Not only is it given back its full adornment, but its original environment is shown and re-transmitted through photos and video. This actiVĀtion of the museum's collections, by 'saVĀges', members of the public and objects added by K'lub supporters - each considered an actiVĀtor - is at the heart of the SaVĀge K'lub activities.3
A Brief History of the SaVĀge K'lub
The SaVĀge K'lub was created in the 2010s at the initiative of Rosanna Raymond, an artist, curator and lecturer born in Aotearoa (New Zealand), of Samoan and Pakeha (European) descent. The idea was born while she was in residence at the Museum of Anthropology and Art at the University of British Columbia (MOA, Vancouver, Canada). There, Raymond discovered that the first donor of the museum's ethnographic collections, a man named Frank Burnett, once gave a talk at the local Savage Club about his travels to Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Kiribati and the Solomons. Raymond hosted the first meeting of her SaVĀge K'lub for the opening of the new MOA galleries, but without taking up the original elitist aspect and including women, who had belatedly (in 1998) been allowed to be part of these clubs in Aotearoa. But what is a Savage club?
The first club was founded in London in 1857 and named after the satirical poet Richard Savage (1697-1943). The members - then exclusively men - met particularly around artistic and literary considerations which made it different from the more traditional Garrick Club. Other Savage clubs were subsequently established throughout the Commonwealth territories, in Australia and Aotearoa for example, in which eminent Māori personalities such as Te Rangihiroa (Sir Peter Buck) took part.
SaVĀge K'lub's installations and performances have been presented in many places in Europe, the UK and Australasia, in a variety of spaces: museums, galleries, tea rooms, etc.4 These places are inhabited by accumulations of things: objects from museum collections, contemporary works, costumes, videos, photographs, books, modified toys, (etc.) which are selected by the members present for the meeting (they are not always the same people gathering). Often the objects from the host museum's collections are chosen by the members based on their personal stories. The way in which all these objects are presented borrows from the cabinets of curiosity and the old ethnographic galleries. They cover the whole space: the floor, the walls and the ceiling. They are networks of stories, memories and thoughts, or memories of performances that form the archive of the K'lub in a way. At first glance, these accumulations resemble those Raymond has seen in some of the Savage clubs that are still in operation, such as the one in Melbourne.5 These spaces are remodelled with each encounter, updated. Raymond always makes sure that flowery cushions, sofas or rocking chairs welcome visitors, so that they can settle in comfortably. The body, its being and presence in space, as well as time, are essential to the proper functioning of the SaVĀge K'lub and, moreover, central elements of Rosanna Raymond's work, which seizes its role as Backhand Maiden6 at each actiVĀtion of the different K'lubs.
Rosanna Raymond, the Dusky Maiden
"Topless, wearing nothing but flora and fauna, surrounded by flotsam and jetsam of her culture, staring off into the distance; a princess, a ceremonial virgin or the daughter of a chief. Presented as an authentic portrayal of the exotic other that had not been sullied by modernity, she was used for anthropological studies and sold around the world in postcards. As a NZ-born Pacific Islander, these images informed my own experience of my being, often to my own exclusion."7
Left: Full Tusk Maiden, 2009, Rosanna Raymond, October Gallery, London. © Rosanna Raymond / October Gallery. Right: Backhand Maiden, 2017, Rosanna Raymond in the Greek and Roman galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Photograph: Richard Wade
In this description of the Dusky Maiden, Raymond explains how this so-called Polynesian icon bears no resemblance to the Polynesian women she knows or has known: she is merely "a construct of Western imagination, a stereotype selling us holidays to homelands some of us had never been to".8 This Polynesian female figure has been photographed and painted many times, but these representations are but mere fabrications of a colonial imagination.
A member of the Pacific Sisters collective (founded in 1992), with which she "attacks [... ] the clichés surrounding the representation of Pacific women through the composition of costumes staged during photoshoots, parades or performances mixing dance, music and films "9, Raymond challenges the figure of the Dusky Maiden by first creating a Full Tusk Maiden (2009), an "older, not so nubile, a little longer in the tooth" version of the Dusky, "ready to take up the challenges of life in urban Polynesia" like a warrior.10 For the Ethknowcentrix exhibition at the October Gallery (London), Raymond created several "Maidens" including the Backhand Maiden, a modern "Dusky", offering a contemporary commentary on European and Polynesian views of these women. It is this Maiden who has become a recurring figure in Raymond's SaVĀge K'lub performances. Dressed in a tapa dress, shaped like colonial dresses but open at the back, the Backhand Maiden - embodied by Raymond herself - wanders around the spaces where the SaVĀge K'lub takes place, in order to activate the space. The main actress of the K'lub, this Maiden plays with both European and pasifika (identity shared between people of Pacific descent) codes by mixing inspirations and revealing her tattooed body, thanks to the opening on the back of the dress. The performances of this Maiden, partly nude according to European conceptions, but never naked as covered with her tattoos according to the Polynesian vision11, has sometimes created tensions between museums and K'lub members: during the presentation of the SaVĀge K'lub in Brisbane for the Asia Pacific Triennial 8 (ATP8), the museum added a sign in the K'lub space to warn audiences that the performances contained 'adult themes'. Raymond replied that her body was not naked because it was tattooed and that this degrading view of the naked female body was a colonial view that had no place in Pasifika culture, nor in an event such as ATP8, whose theme that year was performance.12
"I create spaces to bring together the past, the present, the future through my body. It is the space I use to privilege the Polynesian genealogy I carry within me. [...] While I lived in the UK I brought my body, and the bodies of other Polynesians, into the museums, into the galleries, along with a diversification of the Dusky Maiden".13
Beyond the question of the female body, the SaVĀge K'lub wishes to show an Oceanian/Pasifika body that no longer fits this image of the 'savage' (good, dangerous, or whatever qualifier Westerners may have added to it). By reactiVĀting and reappropriating the image of the 'savage', the members of the K'lub present a body that disturbs gender and is made up of embodied knowledge and genealogies. While provoking it, they make visible the vā that animates them and these events.
Putting the VĀ in actiVĀtion
"My Polynesian body is the vessel for the ancestor. It is the house of the ancestor. It is the space where genealogical matter comes together, binding the past with the present. My body brings the ancestor into the NOW… So, when I meet taonga, I acti.VA.te the space between the past and the present. My body collapses time and space, bringing the ancestors into the NOW."14
The capitalization of the word SaVĀge is a manifestation of the vā through writing. In Gagana Sāmoa, vā refers to a "dynamic space that links and connects all things".15 The vā allows members of the K'lub to actiVĀte the past in the present. It is a liminal space-time that connects ancestors to the living and offers potentialities for the future. The vā is thus an actiVĀtor of relationships and a creator of reciprocity between humans and the things within them.16
SaVĀge K’lub: Vā Tamatea, Birmingham
In Birmingham, we couldn't resist the cushions in front of a television showing performances by members of the K'lub. The videos rightly show the importance and power of the naked/ornate bodies, but also of the hidden/shown and most importantly, moving bodies. For us who had missed the performances and the opening of the venue, the videos actiVĀted the space and made present the artists we had not seen. Ten 'saVĀges' came for this event: Numangatini Mackenzie aka Numa, Jahmeila Quarter, Reina Sutton, Katrina Igglesden, Hanalee, Rosanna Raymond, Jamie Waititi, Rei Ko, Salvador Brown, Lyall Hakaraia. Last summer, a workshop on the making of plant ornaments was also organised for the museum's audiences and led by Tongan artist Sione Tuívailala Monū.
Details from the SaVĀge K'lub Tamatea exhibition showing on the left a Maori cloak from the collections of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and on the right objects brought back by the 'savages'.
© Photograph: Clémentine Debrosse
The accumulation of objects, motifs, materials and words makes the space difficult to grasp at first glance. You have to come closer, raise your head, move around, bend down or stand on your tiptoes. The bodies of the visitors are therefore also in motion, after those of the artists, in an attempt to understand the space in which they find themselves and the people who inhabit it. Unlike most exhibitions, it is not a matter of standing up straight, reading labels and looking at works all hung at the same height. In fact, there are no labels to disturb the visit. The māori cloak in the museum's collections is displayed high up. You have to step away from it to see it in its entirety but, for once, it is possible to get up close and unobstructed by a display case to see the feathers and fibres that make it up, creating a more intimate relationship with this taonga (ancestral treasure). The display case on the right mentioned at the beginning of this article is also subverted: poems by young Fijians have been written in white felt-tip pen on the glass. They speak of the loss of cultural reference points, of ancestors, of mana, and of the desire to reconnect with objects kept in museums far from the Pacific. While the Fijian sculpture in this display case has been actiVĀted and staged in such a way as to recover its original context through photographs, film and ornaments, the words surrounding it on the glass reflect the relationship that contemporary youth have with it.
Installation of dolls and figurines in a display case in the exhibition SaVĀge K'lub Tamatea, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. © Photograph: Clémentine Debrosse
The spaces created by the SaVĀge K'lub challenge the hierarchy of objects and art created by museums. Here, a Fijian kava bowl dialogues with a barbie on which tattoos have been drawn. The omnipresence of the body, through ornaments, costumes, photographs or videos, makes the space come alive. While one of the aims of the SaVĀge K'lub is to actiVĀte the objects kept by Euro-North American museums, it also engages visitors to reflect on the museum space, what it keeps and how it stages things. Finally, the K'lub challenges our vision of the Pacific and of those who embody it, disturbing our imaginations and constructing new ones.
Clémentine Debrosse & Garance Nyssen
Cover picture: SaVĀge K’lub Tamatea, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. © Photograph: Clémentine Debrosse
3 However, the notion of performance is not to be understood here only in an artistic sense, but also as a way of honouring the ancestors. JACOBS, K. & RAYMOND, R., 2016. “Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at the eight Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art”. World Art, 6 (2), p. 239.
4 LYTHBERG, B., “21st Century South Sea Savagery: Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at APT8”, Broadsheet Journal, 45 (1), p.15. All exhibitions are listed on the K'lub's website: Mahi, SaVĀge K’lub, https://www.savageklub.com/nav-bar/mahi, consulted on 24 October 2022.
5 JACOBS, K. & RAYMOND, R., 201. “Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at the eight Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art”. World Art, 6(2), p. 235.
6 Raymond defines the Backhand Maiden in these terms: a ceremonial virgin, with centipede edges, never one for compliments, she’s a true savage, quick to bare her buttocks at the slightest offence, has no qualms about slapping your lips and telling you to eat shit, whilst trussing you up like pig ready for the spit… but has the most fantastic manners and a loving face with much warmth in her eyes. She had a big black eel for a lover but had him chased away, lest they were discovered, as it would be her own facial blood, not that of her hymen, she would be covered in. RAYMOND, R., 2018. ‘Backhand and Full Tusks: Museology and he Mused’. In CARREAU, L., CLARK, A., JELINEK, A., LILJE, E., and THOMAS, N., Pacific Presences volume 2: Oceanic Art and European Museums. Leiden, Sidestone Press, p. 402.
7 Description by Rosanna Raymond of the Dusky Maiden 's archetype. Ibid, p. 398.
8 Ibid, p. 399.
9 BERNADAC, A., 2018. “Femmes du Pacifique : les Pacifique Sisters”. In CASOAR, https://casoar.org/2018/05/02/femmes-du-pacifique-les-pacific-sisters/, consulted on 25 October 2022.
10 RAYMOND, Rosanna, 2018. ‘Backhand and Full Tusks: Museology and he Mused’. In CARREAU, L., CLARK, A., JELINEK, A., LILJE, E., and THOMAS, N., Pacific Presences volume 2: Oceanic Art and European Museums. Leiden, Sidestone Press, p. 400.
11 See GELL, A., 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford/New York, Clarendon Press/Oxford University press.
12 JACOBS, K. & RAYMOND, R., 2016. “Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, World Art, 6(2), pp. 242-243.
13 RAYMOND, R., 2018. ‘Backhand and Full Tusks: Museology and he Mused’. In CARREAU, L., CLARK, A., JELINEK, A., LILJE, E., and THOMAS, N., Pacific Presences volume 2: Oceanic Art and European Museums. Leiden, Sidestone Press, p. 401.
14 Ibid., p. 404.
15 LYTHBERG, B., 2016. “21st Century South Sea Savagery: Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at APT8”. Broadsheet Journal, 45(1), p. 15.
16 McDOUGALL, R., RAYMOND, R., 2016. SaVAge Kunst, p. 2.
- BERNADAC, A., 2018. “Femmes du Pacifique : les Pacifique Sisters”, CASOAR, https://casoar.org/2018/05/02/femmes-du-pacifique-les-pacific-sisters/, consulted on 25 October 2022.
- Fierce, Healing Gardens of Bab, https://wearefierce.org/healing-gardens-of-bab/, consulted on 25 October 2022.
- JACOBS, K., & RAYMOND, R., 2016. “Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at the eight Asia Pacific Triennal of Contemporary Art”. World Art, 6(2), pp. 233-246.
- LYTHBERG, B., 2016. “21st Century South Sea Savagery: Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub at APT8”. Broadsheet Journal, 45(1), pp. 14-17.
- LYTHBERG, B. “KRONIKling the K’lub: from 19th Century Savages to 21th Century SaVAgery”, SaVAge Klub, https://www.savageklub.com/nav-bar/ranga-toi, consulted on 25 October 2022.
- McDOUGALL, R. & RAYMOND, R., 2016, SaVAge Kunst.
- RAYMOND, R., 2018. ‘Backhand and Full Tusks: Museology and he Mused’. In CARREAU, L., CLARK, A., JELINEK, A., LILJE, E., and THOMAS, N., Pacific Presences volume 2: Oceanic Art and European Museums. Leiden: Sidestone Press, pp. 397-408.