Genius Awards 2016
Videos, potlucks, photographs, installations, tropical-scented cleaning agents for sniffing.
WAS SPEECHLESS WHEN:
A high-school friend said, as though it were a compliment, "You're the skinniest Samoan I've ever seen!"
A love for the history of matcha tea.
Mario Lemafa only briefly romanticized art as a studio practice. "I come from performance," Lemafa declared instead. In high school, it was musicals. In college, it was theater. But as a person of color, Lemafa ran into limitations immediately—and he fit in better with the performance-art crowd anyway.
A story Lemafa tells is like a line straight out of a joke about how to know when you're a performance artist. For an early photo work, "I told my mother to put this houseplant on my face as I laid on the floor," Lemafa told me, giggling.
It was a really big houseplant. The photo appeared in Lemafa's 2012 graduation show from the University of Washington's photomedia program, titled Be Tropical. The picture of Lemafa prone under a potted palm was tacked to the gallery wall with a palm-tree sticker. Stickers were juxtaposed with black-and-white images of aboriginal sculptures, hula girls, Elvis, and Lemafa pretty in pink beach towel and cap.
A little history: Lemafa, 26, was born in Hawaii, of Samoan descent. With a brother, Lemafa was raised mostly by a single mother. They moved so many times that Lemafa lost count, and anyway it didn't much matter, because they always had a place with other Pacific Islander families and church communities. They were people with a strong sense of indigenous identity and nomadic living, of origins and movements.
Lemafa's wildly creative, DIY work is reflective of all of those realities and more. It is analog and fleshy, digital and flashy. It teems with life in any medium, and often it's funny.
Earlier this year at Interstitial, Lemafa's selectively bleached aloha shirts—near a shelf of travel-size bottles full of tropical-scented and fruity-colored cleaning agents for sniffing—felt pointed, lighthearted, visceral, and emo all at the same time.
An entire show can usually be packed up into a suitcase and moved. The glaring exception was in 2012 when Lemafa exhibited a series of photographs at 4Culture documenting a journey revisiting the 15 places the family had lived in Washington alone. In the center of the room was placed a rickety staircase—the one from the family's current mobile home, detached and transported into the gallery.
Lemafa wears a Darigold jacket because it marks a certain working-class and poor background that is real and continuing (it was Lemafa's stepfather's work jacket). Lemafa does not want to be a careerist artist or a member of the "creative class." Hustling up odd jobs supports the work of pulling people together by way of art. The biggest thing to come out of the Interstitial show for Lemafa was not a sale of any kind but rather a potluck that involved all kinds of foods related to the Pacific Islands, from processed and mass-produced to homemade and traditionalist.
Two other artists joined the collaborative-spirited Lemafa, Seattle's Roldy Aguero Ablao and Samoan writer Sia Figiel, and since June, Lemafa and Figiel have been crossing the American South on foot. They stop to meet with fellow Pacific Islanders for conversations about food, culture, obesity, and indigenous health, often at military bases and churches. Lemafa calls it practicing "walking the talk, literally." The walk isn't art. It's a service mission by a native road-tripper always in touch with home, an enrichment course in preparation for the next potluck.