behind: Untitled (Anagrams + Objects for R.U. & R.U, Part I)
front: Untitled (Black Sabbath and other Anecdotes)
Newell Harry’s cross-cultural itinerary informs a rich oeuvre that explores historical and present-day instances of migrations of people, objects, and languages across the Pacific Ocean. The artist’s works often appropriate elements of tribal art to deploy and subvert their social functions. For instance, his currency weavings address the alternative notions of value, currency, and exchange that govern the tribal economies of the Vanuatu archipelago, where Harry spends much of his time. Other works draw on the islands’ creolized languages: Vanuatu’s main language of Bislama—a mixture of English, French, and Portuguese— is spoken in some 120 different dialects. Through his engagement with those highly idiomatic structures, the artist addresses larger questions about the complex translations that underlie all cultural exchange.
Commonly referred to as “gift mats,” the tapa cloths onto which Harry prints his anagrams have great social significance in various Pacific cultures: Tapa cloths are donated to commemorate significant life events, such as birth or marriage. By appropriating those personal presents for his art, he subtracts them from the gift economy and instead places them into circulation in the art world. Oscillating between the personal and the impersonal, Harry’s works are also tongue-in-cheek references to the word games of conceptual art. Yet while he outsources the production of the tapa cloths, the anagrams he prints onto them—which switch from English to Bislama and vice versa—are personal jokes known only to the artist and his friends. In addition to the anagram gift mats, photographs from Harry’s stays in India, Vanuatu, and Tonga further testify to the many human encounters that inspire his art practice.