... 'There's an old Samoan fa'agogo story about a beautiful young man who was lost, appearing again only in his reflection in a tidal pool. My writing and my paintings are heavily influenced by Samoan fa'agogo. They're the most beautiful of stories: simple, direct, metaphorical but completely unlike western narrative in many ways, and oddly similar in other ways. My themes are influenced by my spiritual beliefs. Currently, I go back and forth between surrealism and realism, like a bird with two nests. I take things I get from one to help build the other, for I live in both worlds: the totemic and the representational.' ...
Sia Figiel: Like fellow Pacific artists John Pule, Filipe Tohi, Andy Lelei, Michel Tuffery and Fatu Feu'u, you draw inspiration from the tapa cloth, or siapo as it is known in Samoa.
Dan Taulapapa McMullin: My representation is totemic, tribal, allegorical, an autochthonal chronicle of contemporary Samoan life. The pungency of oil paint reminds me of the blood tree dyes I gathered as a small boy for my great-grandmother, Fa'asapa, to print and paint onto tapa cloth in Malaeloa village in Samoa.
SF: Your work is rich with historical references - for example, O le Fetu o Tifaga, 2008, and the Mau and Tui Manu'a paintings of the same year. Can you comment on the difference between a work that is painted with a historical context in mind and one that is painted in a more contemporary one?
DTM: The historical subjects I choose to paint are almost always connected to my life now. All the historical paintings I've done are based on family history, but perhaps more importantly for me, they're reflections on the background of Samoa in general and American Samoa in particular and how it shaped me and my family and friends. In my contemporary paintings I show who we are now, or at least I try to, and in my historical paintings I try to show how we got here.
SF: I'm excited about the surrealist portraits of y(our) friends. They say as much about their personalities as they do about yours. For instance, there's choreographer Seiuli Allan Alo as a cheeky angel, sculptor Filipe Tohi as a church and the playwright Victor Rodger as a cathedral.
DTM: It started off with a portrait of Victor with a couple of church towers coming out of his forehead like horns. It's combining Samoan piety with Samoan humour and sensuality. I guess it's playing with ideas of 'sin' and 'fun'. We always say kafao, which is to go out and have a good time, to waste time, to be irresponsible.
SF: Most of us who practise art in the Pacific, whether we're painters or poets or fashion designers, are heavily influenced by our oral traditions. Would you comment on how oral culture has influenced your work as a painter.
DTM: For me painting and making visual art is a high form of storytelling and grows out of my poetry, theatre, screenwriting and performance, and what you, Sia, call the suifefiloi of our narrative, the 'weaving' together of garlands of our stories, the island and the urban.
SF: Who are your western influences?
DTM: Da Vinci, Watteau, Gauguin and Picasso. Da Vinci because he was the first to use optics, the camera, while at the same time he exaggerated physiology in the classical manner. Watteau because he avoided the camera before the modern camera was even invented - he was in that sense the precursor to modernism because he was all about expression, to my way of seeing. Gauguin - in spite of postcolonialism and his orientalism, his exoticism, his assimilationism, in spite of all that or maybe because of that - he seduces me. Isn't it awful? I really should do a series based on Gauguin, but with a twist of lime or lemon and a dash of acid, but maybe I do that anyway. And Picasso because he really was the half-child of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, but the native got in bed with the mistress of the house and the children are also half African, half Pacific Islander, half Native American. He was global, he was consciously global, but now we're all hardly aware of how global we all are as artists.
SF: What else influences and inspires you to create?
DTM: 'Native' sculpture - the kind of artmaking that is not defined as art; the making of gods and goddesses, totems, idols, idol worship, graven images, pagan images - this for me is the future. For me our future as artmakers is in our past. And in an odd way this relates to my early experience with conceptual artists who are concerned with making art that is not art. I've chosen what is in western culture a traditional path, but my viewpoint on it is both native Pacific Islander and conceptual, therefore I cannot say where my art is going, except that I find inspiration in the forms of artmaking that are not artmaking; that instead there were and are for us ways of relating to life and to something beyond ...
This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the entire article in Art & Australia's Winter 2009 issue.