Edith Amituanai by Anna Sanderson

I was introduced to Edith Amituanai, a first-generation New Zealand Samoan, in 2004 when she was in the process of hanging her first work in adealer show. She was getting used to how her colour prints looked framed and encased in the chosen mats of cream, and, in consultation with her dealer Anna Miles,was trying to work out how to configure them on the wall.

We spoke briefly about our mutual interest in American photographer Tina Barney, another chronicler of her cultural milieu, in this case affluent East Coasters. I had recently seen a show of Barney's in New York in which French aristocracy posed in their houses amongst impressive interiors. I told Edith about an interviewwith Barney I'd read in the exhibition space, in which she says that interiors had initially been more important than people in her photographs, although nowthere was equivocation between the two. She describes the level of her excitement at being confronted with the astoundingly opulent interiors of wealthy Italian families she had come to photograph. Had she been younger, Barney said, she would have to have gone to the bathroom to throw up. When ayear later I was sent a selection of Edith's images to write about, I also went looking for material on Barney.

Barney and Amituanai share an anthropological approach to their subjectmatter. Or more precisely, they both impose an anthropological eye onto their subject matter as a kind of distancing device. ‘I photograph my surroundings and people I know as if they are unfamiliar, although what I want to show is anintimate and particular view', Amituanai says.1 Barney recounts a piece of advice given her by one of the best pictureeditors she has known, Michael Collins, as she set off to photograph the Scarlet Society in Atlanta. ‘He said, "Pretend you're going to Papua New Guinea.".'2

Although geographically and culturally at opposite ends of the earth,the two photographers document the same kinds of events (with varying degrees of staging): people in their homes surrounded by their things, and larger groups at big family events. Comparing them can feel like an anthropological exercise. Barney's Sunday New York Times (1982) shows the casual disarray in which a beer bottle will sit on the table next to a baby's bottle. (‘This is the class that likes to drive ten-year-old domestic cars that haven't been washed in months').3 Amituanai's The Amituanui Family Lotu (2004) also pictures a family reading together, although here, it is an orderly and unified activity in a spotless living room.

From Fisher's Island to Auckland, very different relationships are drawn between subject and interior. Barney's figures seem small and intricate-nothing without their props-whereas Amituanai's characters are big humbler dwellings. The Bridesmaids (2004) depicts two young women in pink dresses putting final touches on in front of a mirror. The scene is tightly framed and so a sense of the interior is limited to knowing they are in a plain-walled room with patterned curtains, and a cluttered wooden dresser.

This relatively cramped view is, however, organised with a formal and compositional sophistication. The background-one-third curtain and two-thirds plain white wall provides a triptych-like framing device into which two real figures and one reflection roughly fit. As with other of Amituanai's images, all the room's object detail seems collected somehow into one corner. The left-hand third of the picture is solid detail: the turquoise and coral Aztec patterned curtains, the bridesmaid's reflection in the wood-framed dresser mirror, and the dresser itself , closely packed with bags, tins, bibles and plastic lotion bottles.

The satin dresses seem to render the women more magnificent than their surroundings. Compared to the rest of the environment with its dull props, the surfaces of the dresses draw the eye with their opulence. The central bridesmaid dominates spatially with her back closest to the camera. There is so much dress, it can be traversed with the eye like a landscape. The crossed backstraps pull up and wrinkle across its top. The roll of flesh around her middle displaces the line of the seam and the flare of light which comes off the satin. The play of light down the side of the second bridesmaid is also mesmerising; like liquid lightning. If there is any architecture here it is created by the two bridesmaids, with the world around thrown almost centrifugally against the edges.

Tina Barney's Jill and Polly in the Bathroom (1987) like The Bridesmaids, shows two women (this time a mother and daughter) in a ritual of preparation. Herethough, the subjects are knitted into their interior. Every inch of the bathroom has been assiduously decorated, and the entire scene is formally glued together with pink. The pink floral pattern of the soap dish is close to that of the curtains, which are highly finished with sashes and a concealing box.Dusky pink watermarked wallpaper fills in most of the other spaces in theimage. Both mother and daughter wear pink robes; the daughter's stretch terry, the mother's a crisper cotton.

Barney has talked about how out of her element she has felt in later years, making images without the compositional support of the elaborate interiors of the moneyed classes. When photographing paid models in their own apartments she observes: ‘The one thing I asked was to photograph them in their own houses. And that was the hardest part, because most of these models are starving-they are art students-and most of these backgrounds were not very interesting. They didn't have the architecture and colours and fabric that I like ... It's very hard forme to make an interesting picture without the backgrounds helping me.'

Against this dilemma sit Edith Amituanai's reconstructed scenarios, making repeated use ofthe spartan interior and the unadorned wall. Save a few dressed living rooms, the panels which enclose these staged encounters are often new-looking and flat, painted in variations of white. In the Amituanai images I have seen todate, there are also very few windows which afford any kind of view. If inBarney's Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, an escape route is offered from the extreme fussiness in the interior in the form of an open window showing a greenback yard, Bridesmaids keeps one's gaze locked up and circling within close confines;f rom the bridesmaids to the reflection to the dresser, and so on.

The action is alsotightly framed in Faitala [Gossip] (2004). From what you can see around it, it takes place in a bare, municipal-type interior. Stackable chairs with syntheticgrey-flecked upholstery face a white painted cinderblock wall in two rows. In the front row right up at the wall, a teenaged girl whispers into another' sear. In the second row back, the subject of the gossip receives the slight. The camera is right up close to the chair backs in her row, and so she looms large. A strong white light comes in at on angle on her back. Almost quarter of the frame is taken up with her grey sweatshirt covered bulk.

There is something about the extreme minimalism of the shot (the only non-grey details are a strip of purple on a neckline, the brown face of the whisperer, and the rim of theear of the ‘victim', caught by the light coming over her back) which means that you feel like treating the scene as an allegorical staging of gossip. However,Amituanai selects images in which the expression or attitude of a protagonist creates a snag, and doesn't allow the viewer the simplicity of allegory alone.Here the gossiper, whose profile is the only one we see, has an unaccountable expression. She looks sleepy or inept, and seems to speak with a gulping leer,like she is regurgitating something gaseous as much as talking. Even if it's only that the camera has caught her mid-utterance, this is the image Amituanai chose, and through it a torque is created.

It is the photographer's eye for selecting what Barney calls ‘the little gifts I can't foresee,' which gives the work so much of its sharpness. These sharp bits areetched in over the blunt-edged cartoon of the flatly acted scenarios. The effect here is that thinking her look doesn't make sense to me, and I dismiss this moment and try to stretch my mind beyond it. The selection of an inconclusive decisive moment pushes me either side of the decisive moment, and adjoins the work to a more continuous type of reality.

There is another snag too, this time a tiny detail. The eyelash of the ‘victim' is distinctly silhouetted, so that even though you can't see her face you can see she is looking down at the floor. The positioning of the figures is so that it appears to lightly brush on the outline of the listener's back. There is something maudlin in this detail alone, and when taken with the whole of the body of thevictim, it changes what might seem like a body leaning forward to hear or desiring to be involved in words spoken against her, into a hulking, inert, reflective figure which seems to be able to absorb the indignity.

That the figure faces into the scene and gives the camera her back, gives the audience anover-the shoulder perspective and also establishes a kind of privacy away from the viewer. As with Bridesmaids, the positioning creates questions of inside versus outside,empathy versus sympathy. ‘Many first and second generation New Zealand-born Samoans will look at my photographs and understand the questions I am asking, 'Amituanai writes. As an outsider I can only guess what might be shameful for the protagonist.

Perhaps the surfeit of closed circuit interiors creates the impression that there is no escape route from ones own social configuration. Amituanai sees the things she used to ask when she was younger as her generating questions: Why can't we play outside on Sundays? Why do I have to eat last? Why do I have to serve the older people?Why does our family do Lotu when other people don't? There is something of the seeker in these questions. ‘Why do good people have to die?' one might as well ask. Now she is older, and has her own child, and perhaps has some critical distance.

What has been found? Gossip is gossip is gossip. She has hit her head against something very hard here. It seems that culture, like religion, has the same kind of mystery as a great mountain. Why is it there and why is it formed that way? The photograph answers like a mountain in a way. The questions keep reverberating around the work.

 1 Artist's statement, February 2005. (Taken from her application to the Pacific Arts Development Funding Programme of Creative New Zealand.)

2 Faye Hirsch, ‘Inside People: An Interview with Tina Barney', Art On Paper, May/June 1999, pp.48-53.

3 Paul Fussell, Class, noted in Meyer Raphael Rubinstein,‘Lifestyles