An essay commissioned for Ercan Cains’ solo exhibition for Michael Dodds Gallery, February 2022

Ercan Cairns and his painting practice presented me with a refreshing challenge after almost two decades of writing about and hyping up Moana [Pacific] art and artists. I wanted to understand the artist’s relationship with his Tongan self and his Māori self, his settler whakapapa, and potentially what it looks like in that space in between. In the discussion about belonging and positioning, I am always intrigued with the shades of Otherness that people of colour (POC) experience both from within their ethnic communities and externally within the realm of dominant Pākehā settler culture. In my experience, artwork made in these spaces becomes a portal into largely undocumented worlds, giving us ways to understand the complexity of perpetually evolving Moana identities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

27.09.2021 silkscreen print on Fabriano, edition of 25 | Photo by Sam Hartnett

It was quickly evident that this approach to understanding the artist, and thus his work, felt like a slow road. I sat in Ercan’s studio gazing at painting after painting, an impressively stocked supply of paints, mediums and brushes, a wall of influences, drawings and ideas. I asked questions about his upbringing and whakapapa, his sense of belonging, his various experiences of visiting Tonga and Tūhoe country, his whenua. His answers were factual, not storied or emotionally charged. We looked at more paintings, large unstretched canvases stapled up on to the wall, observed and then rolled away.

In trying to find the rhythm of conversation, I found myself grasping for the knowns about the artist and his work; the youthfulness, the male-ness, the clear and present influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the symbols… the chaos, the post-millennial screen generation cues. I enquired about his economics… who buys his work, where has it been positioned, what is his relationship to selling. The conversation felt superficial, as if skirting around the edge of an unspoken truth, that perhaps I, a mostly rational, full-time arts administrator, was afraid to even vocalise.

Ercan’s painting, and Ercan, won’t be defined. I was trying to find reasons and rationale, the semiotics of his mark making… the ‘why’ of his broken anatomies and chaotic decaying forms. I’m not a writer who has spent a lot of time getting lost in paintings, more an administrator who has tried to create a landscape that allows painters, and the idea of what Moana art can be, to prosper. I wanted to understand who the artist is because it’s what I have been trained to do, and maybe all I know.

Ercan’s work confronted me with my own reflection. My work as a curator was once a radical act of crafting visibility for underrepresented communities, but as radical as my activism might be, I am still confined within frameworks that were seared into me through arts education, formal employment and working with and against the expectations and economics of a settler dominated art world. I saw in my reflection the paradox of the invisible structure that has come to frame my perception of creative freedom. It caught me off-guard; these paintings had exposed my vulnerabilities.

I watched Ercan paint one night. Through incredibly controlled movements of the brush, he rendered multiple likenesses, layers of versions of visions that became fact. Controlled and focused, he channelled something, a consciousness, into paint and marks. I thought of the process in meditation where colours that appear in the mind’s eye reflect the chakras that are being probed, rejuvenated and healed. I wondered if Ercan’s painting gives us permission to feel… not through ordered and rational thought, but in a primal sense, as if our eyes are closed to peripheral distractions, without the labour of words, to feel as a response. 

Ercan is entirely detached from the interpretation anyone may have of his work. With a feminist lens, I can’t help but think of the privilege of that position. To create, unrestrained, to feel valid and empowered, in one’s own sense of what is right, or wrong. There is an unfettered freedom that I am completely envious of. I wonder about the trauma he may have encountered in his young life, and what he has overcome, and why it feels so unusual to encounter a young Moana person who seems to sit so comfortably in his skin and his conviction. As a mother, I see a child bought up to know his worth, protected perhaps from the grim realities of social, economic and political disadvantage that Moana (including Māori) people live with every day in Aotearoa New Zealand. I ask him what he thinks about decolonisation and he asks me, “what’s decolonisation?”. I realise that maybe he is decolonisation, or at least the by-product of it, and quietly congratulate his parents.

My assumptions and thoughts about the artist and his work, are all, in essence, mine. Ercan reminds me that any interpretation of his painting has nothing to do with him. In the quest for meaning, to connect his scenes of broken humans, bones, muscle and ripped-up faces, a literary tapestry could be woven about this work as a response to the global psychic chaos we live in, and our complicity in our ultimate self-destruction. His broken spines as broken humanity, exposed veins and nervous systems as our decaying sense of reality. But somehow my own bullshit radar is triggered. I would be writing pure fiction, or maybe a kind of abstract non-fiction that either way, would feel like straight-up, A-grade spin.  

There is something about spending time with an artist half your age. At 20, Ercan’s freedom exposes my own freedom, or lack thereof. He paints like he is free of academic and economic constraints, like he was raised in an environment where creative freedom was cultivated to thrive, and as such, he was raised resilient. In this space where he has been allowed to channel his pure creativity, and play with it, his work feels like a testament to the impact and the privilege of freedom. At such a young age, Ercan has not only found a language and craft that he loves and is very good at, but he’s also maybe found a way to tap into the ihi – the essential force, the psychic mainline – connecting his very being to the worlds he comes from.

As a multi-cultural person, Ercan has already been through the emotional carwash of being not this, not that, enough slash too much, simultaneously an alien and at home. Struggles of the mixed raced kid is an old well-played record in my collection, not his. But the spiritual connection – beyond social norms, language, etiquette – is the part of being a mixed-race person that is, if you’re lucky, unwavering, a complete known, sometimes unspoken but fully embodied. It is this connection, the wholeness of this connection, that fuels a trust in oneself, an instinct. Ercan’s painting is pure flow, unlaboured intuition. He’s combined his creative freedom with his embodied and genetic connection to the before and after, conscious and unconscious; his paintings are documenting his existence.

As someone who enjoys selling art, I have been intrigued with what drives Ercan’s buyers to the eftpos machine. When I enquired about his relationship with selling, Ercan simply explained that selling work means buying more materials and making more paintings. It is transactional, and exciting, but mostly not about the greasy pole of art fame. He has found a natural resource, a sustainable extraction method, and a hungry demand for his supply. He shares goals that are underpinned by a clever play of the international art market, working between dealers, producing, travelling, always painting.

I imagine those who are buying Ercan’s work[i], those who are quietly investing in his practice and development, are seeing a sense of freedom in his mark making. Maybe it’s power too – power and virility – and owning it, encountering it in painted form every day, is a reminder, or a beacon. Maybe it’s also the freshness of his voice, a Tongan-Māori Moana New Zealander, remixing Basquiat dreaming with Selekā[ii] discourse, in fractured dystopian dreamscapes.

As this young artist’s work gets snapped up and circulated amongst homes that can afford them, I think about his future retrospectives and hope that public institutions start collecting Ercan Cairns sooner rather than later. We are watching an artist grow; his work is his physical and psychological shadow, time marked through dated titles[iii], circuit breaking patterns of artist sustainability and cultural fluidity, and shaking expectations of old-school curators like me.

A note of gratitude

Vinaka vakalevu to Ercan for sharing time, space and insights. Thank you for trusting me to contribute to the reading and rendering of your work. Thank you to Dagmar, for facilitating our connection.

This text has been developed with discussion, support and critique with artists and peers, Nigel Borell, Mereia Carling, Leilani Kake, Niutuiatua Lemalu, Vea Mafile’o, Genevieve Pini and Yazma Smith. My sincere gratitude for your input, criticality, and helping me write again in a climate of chronic crisis.

[i] (notably, predominantly men)

[ii] Selekā International Art Society Initiative (SIASI) was founded by Tēvita Lātū in 2008 to promote art and encourage young artists from Tonga. Ercan has collaborated with Lātū both in Tonga and Aotearoa New Zealand since 2017.

[iii] Ercan’s paintings are typically titled with the numerical date they are completed, unless he gifts naming rights to a close friend.