Greg Semu on deromanticising colonial narratives through his art

Greg Semu, independent indigenous researcher and artist, is well-known for exploring the romanticised colonialist documentation of ‘first contact’ with the tribal worlds. In this essay, he explains how the notions of hegemony and colonialism are used to to reenact historically significant moments. As a New Zealand-born Samoan, Greg’s work includes concepts of the connecting force of the Samoan Va, and begins from a foundation of community engagement and research.


My art practice has evolved around the shared covenant of displacement by colonial hegemony. This universal experience has been the catalyst for communication and evolving the conversation to a new paradigm. For example, “blame the white man” is the standard rhetoric from my observations, and very little has changed. I seek to encourage the current generation to take ownership, and shift the paradigm from the demoralisation of self towards personal and collective empowerment.

“My art practice has evolved around the shared covenant of displacement by colonial hegemony.”

I believe that resistance is an innate instinct which was bestowed upon me from birth. In my youth and early adult years I migrated towards artist collectives of cultural diversity, because I realised that in our solidarity we mutually shared the grievances of our dysfunctional abilities. We banded together and fostered our skills, talents and interests into communicative forms of fashion, art, performance, film, video, photography and literature. We consolidated our experience and preferences into a polyamorous voice.

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Broken + Bleeding’ from the ‘BLOOD RED’ series (2017), supported by Cairns Art Gallery, Queensland Government, Australian Council for the Arts, Australian Government.

I wish to argue that we are force-fed the hegemonic propaganda of self-demoralisation, which after a few generations becomes automated, unquestioned, and unchallenged. There have been several hundred years of colonial rule and colonisation crystallised into the segregation of peoples’ lands and resources. For example, the anthropologic categorising of Polynesia, neighboured by Melanesia and Micronesia, are geographic terms thrusted by a scientific hegemony of economics and division.

Hypocritically and ironically the majority has ruled, controlled, influenced and cohered by a secret minority. Naturally, the masses are led by a leader. Resistance will always be lurking in the shadows. Ideologies and fear are the tools of the oligarchy. Desired greed, and the lust for material possessions we don’t have or need divert the masses into the rat race. The moment we are born the hegemonic oligarchy are influencing our every step, until we become conscious.

The “divide and rule” mantra of the British hegemony has always fascinated me because of its simplicity and enormous success. In the streets of Auckland, blocks and suburbs battled for the victory of the working and lower economic class. Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Niueans, bore grudges and the blunt force of fists and bloody noses. At its most extreme, lives were violently taken. Unanimously, we all succumbed to the hegemony of the government and religious institutions that control our quality of life and entry into the white man’s heaven.

“I want [indigenous and ethnic minorities] to reexamine the evidence and reinterpret and shift the paradigm from self-defeat to self-empowerment.”

You will notice that the word ‘hegemony’ has infiltrated my conversation of photography. I actively seek community engagement for my art projects. I involve indigenous and ethnic minorities to participate as cast, crew, actors and performers – and of course the main, the audience. I invite them to be actively involved in revisiting their colonial history. I want them to reexamine the evidence and reinterpret and shift the paradigm from self-defeat to self-empowerment. By engaging their imagination and interrogating the propaganda I hope to provoke activity in revaluation for a positive future.

My work elucidates the belief that the true battle for hegemony is an internal battle within ourselves. I want us to move forward gracefully by accepting defeat where deserved, give strength where inequality can be corrected, visualise an empowered, inclusive new generation, and take proactive steps towards reconciliation amongst ourselves first and then progress it to our policy leaders. My conceptualisation is that the hegemonic symbolises greed, fear and corruption. We need to love ourselves, because united we stand, divided we fall.

The Battle of the Noble Savage (2007), supported by musèe du quai Branly, Paris France.

‘The Battle of the Noble Savage’, commissioned and curated by musée de quai Branly (shared copyright with myself, 2007) is an illustration of this dichotomy. Whilst celebrating and recognising the New Zealand and Māori Wars for sovereignty, I have secreted into the image multiple layers of reappropriation. I hijacked the iconic figure of General Napoléon Bonaparte on his white horse by Jacque-Louis David and reincarnated them as black noble savages with facial moko (the Māori word for tattoo). The battle celebrates the warrior race and code of the New Zealand Māori. The glory of the patriarchal soldier and hegemonic composition weaves itself into an insidious, covert counter-history that many amateur historians like myself entertain.

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Detail, ‘Miaoli Taiwan meets the Manu Samoa’ (2009), supported by Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan.

‘The Last Cannibal Supper, ’cause Tomorrow we Become Christians’ (2010) is a synthesised imitation of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ fresco. An illustration of the religious hegemony that has and continues to influence the lives of millions. I am interested in the provocation of the conversation, the drama and the dilemma of the intervention and forced development through religious gentrification and hypocrisy. The title itself contains the concept and the Machiavellian insertion of Christian iconography and its incongruence. Colonised indigenous Christians suffer amnesia when it comes to acknowledging our cannibalistic past and ancestry.

I too struggled with acknowledging this previous to creating this work. My family is also three-generations-practitioners in the Christian faith and have been exposed to the continuous hegemonic war for Christ. In primitive cultures cannibalism was predominantly ceremonial, celebrating triumph and life over conquering an enemy and devouring power – a ritual of hegemony. In Western society cannibalism is an act of desperation for survival, in extreme conditions of a ship or plane wreck in remote geography. These are crude and primitive observations of my amateur opinions. Long story short, the covenant of Christ is a ritualistic cannibalistic metaphor practised by millions in devouring the body of Christ and drinking his blood in remembrance of his sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

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‘The Arrival’ (2014), supported by Creative New Zealand & shot on location in the Cook Islands.

‘The Raft of the Tagata Pasifika (People of the Pacific)’ comes in two parts, ‘The Raft’ and ‘The Arrival’. ‘The Arrival’ is based on a century-old iconic New Zealand painting by Charles F Goldie and Louis John Steele. Titled ‘The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand’ (1898), it is a fictionalised human dramatisation of a voyage based on the imagination of how it might of been. Desperately emaciated, on the eve of death, and suggesting an accidental stumbling upon the promised land of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The hegemonic settlers now well-established and the cultural genocide of native Māori approaching a tragic reality hijacked this painting as a vehicle to displace NZ Māori claims to the land resources as first nations.

“Through art, the hegemony strategically strikes again at the frail morality of first nation natives.”

The painting proclaimed ‘Māori’ came from elsewhere, just like the British settlers and frontier men – thus dislodging their strength and legitimacy, while at the same time reinforcing the protagonists. Through art, the hegemony strategically strikes again at the frail morality of first nation natives. A contemptuous piece hated by the native tribes of NZ, I have emphasised it is a fictional interpretation. I love this painting, I stumbled upon it on a virgin school trip to the Auckland public art gallery at the age of 12. I was instantly impregnated by the beauty, pain and misery contained in the brushstrokes of this Kiwiana masterpiece. In researching this fictionalised painting, examining the evidence of which so little clues or notes remain, the inaccuracies are blatant and fantasia.

The first question is, where did they arrive from? The conclusion is the Cook Islands, where the stories of our ancestors provoke and support the migration of nine vaka leaving the shore of Rarotonga and only seven arriving. The numbers alone dispel the mythology that the Pacific voyagers stumbled upon Aotearoa by accident. An armada was purposely sent to populate Aotearoa New Zealand. I have deconstructed and reconfigured a contemporary version of the evidence and the intel gathered. I replaced the emaciated and desperate mimicking of the original by empowering the works with a fit, healthy, tattooed and determined cast of Cook Island indigenous. Seeking a genetic relationship pre-arrival of the Māori and reconnecting through the medium of art, the bloodlines of NZ Māori with their relatives the Cook Island Māori. Counter-hegemonic propaganda, and again provoking the debate of relationship with the internal hegemony of the Cook Islands, New Zealand government, and New Zealand Māori tribes, hapu and iwi and the process of economic and cultural decision-making.

‘The Raft’ (2014) supported by Creative New Zealand, & shot on location in the Cook Islands.

‘The Raft’ is a reconfiguring and romantic interpretation of ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ by Théodore Géricault two centuries ago (1818-19), and serves as the symbiotic parent for ‘The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand’. It is heavily influenced by my years of living in Paris; the romanticism period of European paintings – the Flemish, the Spanish and the Dutch masters – permeate my sensibilities and the visual aesthetics of my photography. The importance of these paintings is that they are non-ecclesiastical and not commissioned by the hegemony of the Church. Yet within the composition and rebirth through trials and tribulations, they speak of the rhetoric of the evangelical. Again I am seduced by the glory of pain and suffering that brings us closer to God.


Header image: Detail, ‘Last Cannibal Supper, ’cause Tomorrow we Become Christians’ (2010), supported by Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre and ADCK New Caledonia.

Greg Semu is a New Zealand-born Samoan, Sydney-based artist. Find him at

Edited by Evelyn Marsters.