Why Must I Wait For Night? - The Restless Diaspora of Dan Taulapapa McMullin

Daniel Satele profiles California-based Dan Taulapapa McMullin, a relentlessly fluid practitioner whose plays, collages and installation offer a very 21st century account of what it means to be 'home'

A thoroughly well-travelled artist of the Samoan diaspora, Dan Taulapapa McMullin lives in California. He tends to identify himself as a painter and a poet; but Dan’s oeuvre is excessive, encompassing film; sculpture; installation; playwriting – and he is no stranger to collage. Before working as an artist, Dan had what he terms an “eclectic career,” “decorated with awards, including an L.A. area Emmy Award for cable photojournalism.” Dan’s artworks have been exhibited and collected around the world. He’s held multiple residencies.

Dan’s poetry is widely anthologized and 2013 will see the publication of a solo collection, Coconut Milk. Having been privy to a sneak peak at the manuscript, I feel qualified to highly recommend it. I also recommend Sinalela, Dan’s award-winning, 2001 short film. Conflating “Cinderella” with the Samoan legend of “Sina and the Eel” into a fantasy world populated almost entirely by fa’afafine, Sinalela suggests some of the primary concerns of Dan’s later work. Meanwhile, the film’s availability on youtube, coupled with its DIY-digital aesthetic, makes Sinalela a flagrantly indigenous entry into the field of contemporary internet art.

With regard to his work’s variety, Dan says; “[The] fluidity of movement in my practice subverts entrenched narratives and allows for experimentation along different tracks of expression that may or may not meet.” While Dan works with various forms, his creative output nonetheless comprises a project that pursues the same set of interests quite relentlessly. This project, I believe, is relevant not only to viewers from his “home” communities: Samoan and queer. Cunningly, even cuttingly, tracing the interstices between western and Samoan concepts and constructs of selfhood, Dan’s art helps us understand what is at stake in the era of globalization, where ancestral and subcultural communities are geographically dispersed; and we are all, ever-increasingly, led to perform the role of “other” for our neighbours.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood and adolescence?

Like a lot of Pacific Islanders from countries like American Samoa that are under U.S. domination, because my father joined the military, my brothers, sisters and I grew up in what was essentially the same military base. Whether that base was in Hawaii, Germany, or Japan, there was always the same sort of commissary to shop for the same products; the same B-grade movies playing at the on-base movie theatres; even the same sort of military chaplains at church.

But for us, the world we truly lived in was our Samoan family, with the other Samoan families that always seemed to find us - even in the dead of winter in Northern Germany. We'd be the only family having octopus cooked in coconut milk and its own ink for Thanksgiving dinner. And when we did go back to Samoa, it was like that bubble became a world again, with its own colours, smells, strange ways, terrible lows, and such wonderful heights of joy.

What kind of work would you produce if money was no object? Would it be different from the work you make now?

As far as painting and writing goes, probably not so different, except that I would like to do very large scale paintings and murals. I’m also interested in conceptual pieces involving public space and social engagement, but that is a newer interest that I'm just beginning to work out.

If you could hang out with any living celebrity or famous artist for a day, who would you choose to hang out with, and why?

Marlene Dumas, because I love her paintings and I would enjoy watching her work and getting to know her. I've seen videos on youtube of her painting; she gets this crazy look in her eyes, I love it, trance.

How did it feel the first time you showed work in public? Does it feel different now you’ve done it more or does it still feel the same?

Nervousness is excitement without breathing, as they say. That's how I felt the first painting I showed, at Vineyard coffeehouse in downtown Apia, Samoa, and I feel the same way now, wherever I am. It’s like I’m floating just above the ground and about to crash. I trust that if I’m driving past my own edge then that must be good.

Do you ever think about quitting making art?

Sometimes I think my stuff is shit and I really should give everyone a break and stop doing what I'm doing. And sometimes I feel like what I'm doing no one else is doing and why not do it? It's fucking unusually amazing, there’s nothing like it anywhere! But most of the time I just keep plodding along, looking at the new blank canvas or the new piece of paper, willing the image, its story, from some kind of nothingness. Quitting is for cocksuckers. Oh wait, I am a cocksucker. Okay then; quitting is for really terrible cocksuckers, and I am definitely not a really terrible cocksucker.

Who most significantly influences your art but is not an artist him- or herself?

My old man, my boyfriend, usually in bed, after yadda yadda, looking out the windows at the hills of Laguna, California, where we are. It's moments like that I'm in Samoa again, my soul is; and ideas come easily, like mangoes hitting a tin roof in the rain.

Who is an under-rated artist you admire? Why does this artist deserve more recognition than she or he currently gets?

I don't know if he's under-rated but I really like Bjarne Melgaard right now, and Sterling Ruby, but a lot of people seem to think they're over-rated. Really, the woefully under-rated artists right now, on the international contemporary platform, are rural indigenous artists like the Ömie artists of Papua New Guinea and the Mbuti artists of the Congo, mostly rural indigenous women artists like them. They deserve more recognition for their beautiful and amazing works.

What is the hardest thing about being an artist?

We need more art collectors, collecting art creates a legacy and brings more beauty to all our lives.

What projects and/or shows are you working on over the next 12 months?

Oi aue! Well, I just finished a Master of Fine Arts, so the goal at the moment is to find a job, teaching art, hopefully. I just got a new studio in downtown Los Angeles, in Chinatown, in a storefront with a lot of other artists on the plaza. It’s a sleepy place, really - old Chinese merchants and lots of musicians and artists with cool hairdos.

I'm starting a new series of paintings looking at ideas of perspective and the gaze, seeking to undermine these tropes. I'm often about undermining, or overturning, the subjects I paint and write, mainly to get at another way of looking at things. I could say it's my own way but quite often I surprise myself, so if it is my own way then it's really about discovering what that is at this moment.

I'm also finishing proofs for my new book of poems, Coconut Milk, which is being published later this year by the University of Arizona Press, as part of their “Native Series” of books. I hope to begin touring and reading Coconut Milk from the end of this year and into 2014.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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