Living the way we do in isolated, impersonal Australian suburbia, where one’s next door neighbours are as estranged as if from a completely different city, it is somewhat disconcerting, and at the same time very comforting to walk into a supermarket here in Samoa where I last did a shop nine years ago, and have the manager casually address me by name and suggest she hasn’t “seen [me] ‘round here for a while”.
Such was our wonderful return (or home-coming) to Samoa last week. Whether it be the owners of a bar, the manager of the bank or the waitress at the best pizza outlet outside Sicily, we found that our absence had been but a blip on peoples’ memories, and that there was little surprise at our return – which in itself is no great bombshell, either, as after only one week back, we can see why there are so many people who once washed-up on these shores with the intent of completing a short-term job, and then heading home, but who wound-up staying forever.
Such as sorry old James Percival (not his real name), Gaugin-impressionist (read: imitator) extraordinaire. Percival’s been here for about as long as anyone can remember; painting scenes from Samoa’s rich mythology in bright, tropical blends, and flogging them off for a bomb to salt-water-crazed yachties and sun-scolded tourists who he manages to convince, despite his dishevelled appearance, that he is Samoa’s premier artist. Well to some extent, this might be true; he’s been here for so long that he may well be the oldest surviving artist, but I’m not sure ripping-off Gaugin’s Tahitian-inspired master pieces makes one a great artist.
To be fair, Percival’s stuff is quite nice; the colours are rich and bright, and the scenes portrayed are both mystical and intriguing, but I think it’s fair to say they would be more appropriately hung in the living room of someone’s beach-side holiday shack than in the fine-art auction houses of Sydney’s Paddington, or Melbourne’s Armadale. He must have taken some pretty crazy drugs in the sixties (or at least drunk too many fermenting coconuts) to have come up with the scenes that he did, but alas, his last original idea must have been at about that time, and since then he has simply been reproducing the same twelve scenes over and over again.
Despite having gone completely troppo some time back, Percival still maintains some semblance of his upper-crust, British roots. True, the stiff upper lip has become a little limp in the humidity, and his mandatory sailor captain’s hat has lost its colour and shape, but there are still strong traces of Her Majesty’s plum deep within his voice box, and he continues to wear button-down long-sleeved shirts, despite the effects that the intense humidity has on his dripping armpits.
He may not have always been this way, however. In fact, at one time, Our Man Jim may have been quite the lady-killer. Samoan-born, New Zealand author, Sia Figuel, in her humorous and occasionally cutting observations about life and love in Samoa’s capital, Apia, mentions a foreign artist who regularly entertained and instructed young Samoan maidens looking to learn the ways of love from an expert in the field, so as to be ready with a few handy skills when the time came for their first dallying with Eti or Sione in the plantations behind the city. Could this have been the great and famous James Percival, or merely a fabrication of Ms Figiel’s in order to enrich her South Seas adventure? If the former, then it most certainly must have been a long time ago, as we discovered during our first drive through Apia last week.
At first we had become somewhat worried about the fate of James Percival when we noticed that the dilapidated Samoan fale (house), whose rotting roof and termite-ridden pillars served as his “studio” for decades, had been torn down to make way for yet another, highly imaginative (big and square) China funded-and-built, concrete business tower.
But alas, rounding the German-built clock tower, there he was, staggering down the middle of the main street, his white hair sticking out in all directions like a rabid dog, his grotesquely swollen, ulcerated legs all bandaged up beneath his thongs, a folio under his right arm and his massive gut squeezing out between the top of his ancient micro-shorts and the bottom of his shirt, crookedly affixed as it was by only half of its original buttons.
Clearly no ladies man these days, but the extraordinary artistic output of Samoa’s self-proclaimed, premier artist obviously continues to relieve unsuspecting visitors to Samoa of their hard currency. It’s good to see that in Paradise, some things never change.
Gaugin or Percival; who would know? Certainly not 90% of cashed-up yachties passing through Apia in the last 30 years. Pic: http://markelikalderon.com.
Heading credit: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.