Part three in our ongoing ‘Post-Graffiti Pacific’ roles out today, with a comprehensive chat with artist Benjamin Work. Benjamin is of mixed Scottish and Tongan ancestry, and intially struggled to find a sense of belonging and gravitated towards the pop-cultural influences emanating from Los Angeles in the 1990s, such as skate, fashion, gang and graffiti culture. Today, Benjamin’s journey to learn more about his Tongan ancestry has led him to discover images of antique Tongan weapons finely carved with often overlooked symbols of warriors and royalty. These key figures in motion, form the majority of Benjamin’s works with strength and power and occasionally, the Lupe, a pacific bird of peace, feature in his works. He continues to explore the power of kula (red) and uli (black) and their connections to titles, Christian beliefs and youth gangs in Tongan thinking and practice.
Damo: What does it mean to you to be part of ‘Post-Graffiti Pacific’?
Benjamin: It’s a statement from a group of creatives that marks a place in time (tā) and space (vā). We are situated in a unique and rich part of the globe that has been subject to many misconceptions throughout the ages, so we are one part of that voice telling our stories from this region of the world. Just like our forefathers who were explorers venturing into uncharted waters, also with us, as we explore what it looks like to be Post graffiti in the Pacific Region.
Damo: Can you talk us through your piece, and how you responded to the brief from conception to finalization?
Benjamin: There is a Tongan proverb ‘we walk forward into the past and backward into the future’. This has been my approach to “post graffiti pacific”, I’ve looked to history not only with my graffiti but also pulling on my Tongan history. My current work pulls on the semiotics found in material based artifacts, namely ancient Tongan war clubs that are narrative in nature. These motifs were used to communicate stories of the clubs owner, and the societal and spiritual structures. I created my space to be a place that would be easily accessed in the gallery for the audience to enter into and encounter. I explored (tatau) symmetry, (potupotutatau) harmony and (faka `ofa `ofa) beauty, using mainly red (kula) and uli (black), which are foundational to Tongan thinking and practice throughout all levels of society. Interestingly enough, these patterns in thinking and practice reveal clues to the Pacific’s connections to the ancient world, as seen in the Greek type design work on pottery by the Lapita people, who were first to settle in the Pacific. And keeping with the clean cut graphic aesthetic which was evident through my graffiti work, I also applied that to my space, not only with my paintings but also the other elements including the flags and sculptures.
Damo: How does your piece reflect the ‘dawn of a new movement in art’?
Benjamin: This point in time and space is an intersection of the old and the new, not doing away with the old but building upon these strong foundations of Tongan culture and the graffiti culture, that led into producing relevant work for the here and now. I believe it is a beacon for other creatives to walk into their assignments in life, to pursue ideas, dreams, directions that they have on their hearts to do.
Damo: How do you define street art? Has your inclusion in Post-Graffiti Pacific changed your view on this?
Benjamin: I would describe what I create currently do as ‘post-graffiti pacific’. I am from a graffiti background which I started to participate in 1993 through publications and media portraying the LA gang lifestyle which heavily influenced the Polynesian youth culture in Auckland City where I grew up. The movie “Colours” had already spread the street gang message and overnight street gangs sprung up, and with that came a big tagging culture. But as I continued tagging while at high school, I discovered the Hip Hop culture from New York firstly through the publication ‘The Source’, and I started writing. I have used the term ‘street art’ but it hasn’t felt entirely comfortable, coming from a strong graffiti writing culture.
Post-Graffiti Pacific defines my current place in my creative journey.
Damo: How does it feel to be included in an exhibition among several of your contemporaries? Did this influence you in any way?
Benjamin: To be included alongside these talented artists is always an honour. We have journeyed through the ups and downs in life together for many years and consider each other to be family (whanau), and that has a huge influence on me. We have created an environment that encourages yet also challenges each other to grow as an artist. I must mention another influence on this exhibition, our experience dealing with Bill and John at aMBUSH gallery was definitely a highlight of this exhibition for me. When you work with galleries an other institutes it can be a bit rocky but aMBUSH was a breath of fresh air, they are very supportive and have an understanding of the culture and know how to have fun through the whole process.
‘Post-Graffiti Pacific’ continues at Sydney’s aMBUSH Gallery.