K. Emma Ng
Smelting, the extraction of metal from ore at intense heat, is a natural turn of interest for Sam Thomas—an artist who has long been interested in value and its transformations.1 Throughout his practice, Thomas has worked to refashion the materials and signs of everyday life, producing fresh assemblages of meaning and value from familiar ciphers. In previous exhibitions, Thomas has turned bunches of plastic bananas into chandeliers, worked together the culturally disparate forms of Cadillacs and vaka, and punched the outlines of vegetables into brass sheets like banal Orthodox icons.
In his new exhibition Pākehā Gifts, Thomas turns his attention to the vast global implications of the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, as well as the fate of forty brass patu commissioned by Joseph Banks in imitation of patu onewa (stone patu) given to him by Māori during the HMS Endeavour’s 1769 voyage to New Zealand.
Through the exhibition’s two new sculptures, Pacific Aluminium and Plantain Chandelier, Thomas feels out a genealogy for Pākehā art-making, exploring the production and refashioning of Pākehā identity over the course of 250 years. In a year of nationally sanctioned commemorations that have caused the idea of the “encounter” to swirl around in the national discourse, Thomas sweeps together debris from the collision of cultural and economic systems. These collisions are historical (as represented by the presence of Banks) and ongoing (as manifest in Thomas’ reference to the smelter at Tiwai Point). What kind of identities and lopsided relationships, Thomas asks, are produced by these collisions?
Pacific Aluminium is a series of forty patu cast by Thomas from recycled aluminium in Rarotonga, where he has long-established personal and artistic relationships. The historical event that was the genesis of this work was Joseph Banks’s return to London after the Endeavour’s first voyage. There, Banks commissioned foundry owner Eleanor Gyles to replicate the patu he’d brought back with him in brass—representing, perhaps, some of the first metal artworks created by Pākehā following those initial exchanges with Māori.2 Engraved with his family crest and the date 1772, Banks intended to present these brass patu to Māori on his return to Aotearoa. However, this never took place, due to the deterioration of his relationship with James Cook.3 It’s this unfulfilled intention that Sam Thomas is interested in, because he sees Banks’ ungifted ‘Pākehā gifts’ as symbolic of a debt in a ledger of exchange, and representative of larger, ongoing cultural and power imbalances.
While Eurocentric interpreters might (mis)understand the gifting of patu and other objects to Banks as a friendly welcoming gesture on the part of Māori, it’s likely their intention was quite different: “In the early decades of encounter, cross-cultural gifts were made strategically.”4 These gifts were not offered in a spirit of deference, but in an effort “to shape relationships” and to bind “powerful, potentially dangerous strangers” like Banks within relational webs of reciprocity and responsibility.5
Economics and culture are deeply conspiratorial. Capitalism may now seem an inescapable reality, but Thomas’s work reminds us that we operate within only one of many possible regimes of value.6 The types of exchange value that objects can manifest are many, varied, and often relational—just as taonga like patu were given as material tokens of a social compact yet to be fulfilled.7
Pacific Aluminium borrows its name from the aluminium smelter located at Tiwai Point in Southland, which is a subsidiary of the multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto. Within the context of Pākehā Gifts, Tiwai Point anchors us to the Capitalist economic pole, serving as a reminder of the litany of imbalances—environmental exploitation, outsized energy demands, and corporate welfare—that maintain contemporary models of value creation.
In Rarotonga, Thomas’s access to materials like brass is limited, but aluminium waste accumulates on the island as there is no local recycling plant and it is expensive to export. Thomas melted down over 2,500 cans to cast the patu, using a small wood-fired foundry of his own design. The cans recycled by Thomas can likely be traced back to Pacific Aluminium at Tiwai Point, as it is one of the world’s largest aluminium smelters.
The smelter is the single greatest user of electricity in Aotearoa, using between thirteen and fifteen percent of the country’s electricity, at an undisclosed price. In recent weeks, Rio Tinto has announced that they are reviewing the smelter’s financial viability, presumably to pressure state-owned Meridian Energy to further lower the price at which energy is supplied from the proximate Manapouri Dam. Smelting is the least profitable stage of Rio Tinto’s process.8 The ore is mined in Australia, smelted in New Zealand, and then exported to Asia for further processing. Rio Tinto’s aim, therefore, is to extract aluminium as cheaply as possible and seek profit from the other stages of the process.
Thomas eludes this economic machinery. Because his transformative processes are unrecognisable to the commodity logic of “value added” that drives Rio Tinto’s business, the economic value of the artworks resists easy totalling. In this way, Thomas’ work is akin to a kind of alchemy, by which his artistic labour intervenes to rescue materials and signs from an otherwise relentless system of fiscal value.
Within his own practice, Thomas prioritises face-to-face exchange—embedding himself within networks of reciprocity and responsibility akin to those marked out by gift-giving practices in alternative economic systems. The studio, for Thomas, represents a social space for forming and maintaining relationships, not for the solo pursuit of artistic genius. He has an acknowledged fascination with guilds, a model in which cultural knowledge is bound to a particular social structure of trust and exchange. He learned the technique of repoussé, which he uses to create his brass icons, from a bicycle taxi guild in Varanasi, India. Similarly, on the island of Rarotonga, it was taunga (master carver) Mike Tavioni’s friendship, sharing of skills, and encouragement that led him to carve his own vaka.
Thomas’s latest collaboration, with a Los Angeles glass blower, resulted in the creation of Plantain Chandelier, a new version of his banana chandeliers from past exhibitions. Plantain Chandelier was first exhibited as part of the Los Angeles Design Festival, where its flecked green and yellow glass was illuminated for nocturnal passersby in a Koreatown window.
While Pacific Aluminium anchors itself to the cultural-economic system of contemporary capitalism, Plantain Chandelier serves as a counterpoint—reminding the viewer of the resilience found in other ways of exchanging and making. Upon his return to Rarotonga after some time spent living in Los Angeles, Thomas says he was reminded of the way produce, like bunches of bananas, is used on the island as a kind of currency: “You can't visit anywhere without taking something you've grown, which becomes an ongoing exchange.”
What is the role of the artist in society? Of Mike Tavioni, Thomas says, “His studio was a popular meeting place and people were constantly dropping in saying: ‘I need a headstone for my uncle’s grave’; ‘My son is turning 21 – can you make him a spear?’; ‘A chief on the other side of the island is having an investiture and needs a traditional throne.’” The intertwining of art and life that Thomas experiences in Tavioni’s studio deeply impressed him—the recognition that artworks harbour possibilities beyond the ornamental, functioning as active agents in making, and making visible, social relations.
Did Joseph Banks truly understand the spirit of the gifted patu as Māori intended it? Thomas doesn’t claim he did, but he does ruefully acknowledge that by creating Plantain Chandelier in Los Angeles, he has shared in Banks’s impulse to recreate “the exotic,” recognising Banks’s act of Pākehā appropriation as indicative of a tendency that might tempt him too. There is a sense of ownership in the way that Thomas connects himself to Banks, acknowledging, rather than disavowing, him as part of his lineage as a Pākehā artist. By taking on the unresolved circumstances of Banks’s ungifted Pākehā gifts, Thomas deliberately locates the concept of the unfulfilled debt at the heart of contemporary Pākehā identity.
Recycling and sustainability are currently key concerns within Thomas’s artistic practice. What does it mean, in the present moment, for Thomas to recycle history along with aluminium cans? To recycle is to acknowledge that the past cannot be easily wiped away and replaced with a future made anew. Sam Thomas encourages us to glean from what has already been done—to examine the unfulfilled debts and promises we’ve left in history’s trash heap.
1. The development of modern smelting techniques in the 19th century is considered a major milestone of the Industrial Revolution. This allowed aluminium to be extracted at great quantity for the first time, transforming aluminium from a precious metal into an inexpensive commodity.
2. Māori also made metal patu. Writing in detail about Joseph Banks’ brass patu, Jeremy Coote notes several sightings of iron patu in Aotearoa from the 1880s onwards. Jeremy Coote, "Joseph Banks's Forty Brass Patus," Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 20 (2008): 49-68.
3. Banks’s brass patu were dispersed. See Jeremy Coote’s account of where some of these objects are known to be, or to have been sighted. Interestingly, there are accounts of some being sighted in North America, having been given to or exchanged with Native Americans—one was even repatriated from the Smithsonian to the Umatilla nation in 2005. Conversely, there are a number of Native American items held in Te Papa’s collections that are the result of exchanges made during Cook’s voyages.
4. “The Spirit of the Gift,” in Art in Oceania: A new history, ed. Peter Brunt et al. (Australia: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 182.
6. Arjun Appadurai elaborates on gift economies and the possibilities of commodities outside of capitalist societies in his book The Social Life of Things. He uses the phrase “regimes of value” to refer to our social and cultural motivations for exchanging objects, which move beyond simple transactional exchange. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3-63.
7. I’m borrowing Ariella Azoulay’s notion of the “social compact” as a more open-ended variant of “social contract” (in turn adapted from Thomas Hobbes), which seems to better describe the expectations of reciprocity that acts of giving inscribe within gift economies. Azoulay writes, “A compact, then, is a contract based on mutual trust and anticipated, future reward.” Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 108.
8. Rod Oram, interview with Kathryn Ryan, Nine to Noon, RNZ, November 5 2019.