Americana: American Samoa
American Samoa, one of the most remote of the U.S. Territories, has always been culturally autonomous from its Mainland. For example, Samoa still employs the Fa'asamoa, a complex system of cultural practices whose reach extends to its language, religion, customs, familial conventions, and governance. Embedded within the Fa'asamoa is the ancient custom of tatau, or tattoo, as it has become known in the West.
For at least two centuries, young male chiefs have undergone the pe’a, a body tattoo covering abdomen, legs and genitals, inked into one’s skin by a tufuga, or master tattoo artist. The tufuga uses tools created from human and animal bones, exposing the sitter to an excruciating and prolonged right of passage, lasting as long as several weeks. Pe'a markings indicate one's social rank, and are a source of pride for the Samoan elite.
America’s story in Samoa begins in 1839 when a U.S. Navy ship sailed into Pago Pago harbor. Sailors began to adopt the pe’a as a way to pass time on long voyages. Over time, Americans developed a hybridized style, still showcasing one’s place of origin, but preferring pictorial representation to the repetitive semiotic patterns of the Samoan tufuga. While popular in the circle of sailors, whalers and sea farers, tattooing was largely seen as a ‘heathen practice’ in the Western World, and the tattooed were branded as outlaws and subjected to the punitive effects of the practice. Eventually, the practice developed into a thriving subculture, leading to its widespread proliferation throughout the United States.
Skin Deep examines the trajectories of the tattoo in two cultures, its elevated status in American Samoan culture and its marginalized status in American culture. Referencing Group Material’s 1985 exhibition, Americana, this exhibition speaks to the hierarchal classification of art forms. Distinctions between “high” and “low” art are blurred. A work by contemporary conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, for example, is presented alongside packages of pop icon Popeye the Sailorman candy cigarettes. Similarly, strips of various wallpapers juxtapose traditional Samoan pe’a designs with World War II era American tattoos and nineteenth century decorative motifs. Skin Deep provides the viewer with a lens into the shifting historical tableau of tattoo rituals and furthers the curatorial discourse around Group Material’s notion that art develops meaning though social context.