By Samantha Magick and Elizabeth Kolivuso
Suva painter Jane Ricketts’ paintings are a window into Fiji’s history and history-makers, iTaukei and Indo-Fijian culture, cityscapes and intimate depictions of her family.
Ricketts developed her interest in art at a very young age, at the knee of her grandfather, who painted landscapes. But it was a turning point in Fiji’s history that prompted her to take up her brushes.
“I took up painting after the first coup, partly because I was so disturbed by what happened and I was becoming difficult to live with, too beset with anger and I felt I needed something to help me relax and I loved art. So I went to classes, particularly with (then Fiji-based Dutch artist) Jasper Schreurs, who was employed by the Fiji Arts Council. And that’s when I started painting regularly myself.
One of the most moving and powerful paintings in Rickett’s recent exhibition at the Oceania Centre at the University of the South Pacific depicts the funeral of Dr Timoci Bavadra, who was deposed in the 1987 coup. The painting captures the sense of quiet grief of the many people in attendance, and the deep Fijian traditions of the occasion.
Equally powerful are a number of paintings and collages made after the 2000 coup, including portraits of coup perpetrator, George Speight, and another of Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, who was one of the leaders of the ‘Blue Ribbon Vigils’, prayers held in support of MPs who had been held captive at the former Parliamentary complex for 56 days. Other paintings in this series depict the “desecration” of the parliamentary complex by the many people who camped there during the hostage period, and burnt-out vehicles abandoned in the riots that occurred in the early days of the coup.
Although these paintings and collages were borne from anger and grief, Ricketts says she doesn’t feel that way about Speight any longer.
“I don’t feel angry anymore. I feel sorry for him now, because to be honest with you, I feel he’s paid the price and others haven’t. It’s 20 years, he’s been in prison more than 20 years…although I didn’t like what he did.”
Her landscapes include local scenes, such as Suva cottages, water lilies and the tree-lined road that leads into Lautoka—Ricketts relates the story of a friend who threatened to tie herself to one of those trees when it was suggested they be cut down. She also paints scenes of Indo-Fijian life, which she felt were under represented in local art when she was first starting out, as well as a cross section of Fijian society, including powerful Fijian women.
Across her body of work, Rickett’s elegant use of watercolours, oil paints and paper collage bring her subjects, and their stories, to vivid life.
A painting of her best friend Sue Halapua, one of the first women to be ordained as a deacon into the Anglican Church in Fiji is amongst her favourites.
“I guess I like it, partly because I think it’s not a bad likeness of what Sue was like then, and I feel that the pillar represents the oppressive structure of the church, and the [sense of] loneliness.”
Until recently, Ricketts volunteered as an arts teacher for the Fiji Corrections Services. Brought on in the early days of the Yellow Ribbon campaign, what was initially a two-week appointment turned into well over a decade of volunteer service.
“I enjoyed their company,” Ricketts says of the inmates she worked with. “I think they blossomed because they had this talent that hadn’t been recognised before.”
At one time, Ricketts’ paintings adorned many Fijian homes as they featured on calendars widely distributed by a local brewer. Paintings recently displayed at the Oceania Centre were largely drawn from private collections, a big task that involved shipping work from as far as Scandinavia.
For this reason, Ricketts says it is a once in a lifetime exhibition.
“I think it’s the fact that the paintings are owned by different people,” she says. “Some of them live in countries like my daughter in Norway and my brother in New Zealand. It’s not easy to get the works together so it’s not going to happen again.”
Ricketts is self-effacing, “I consider myself a teacher with art as a hobby” she says, while acknowledging that seeing all her paintings together gave her great joy.
The Director of the Oceania Centre, Larry Thomas, says in staging the exhibition of Rickett’s work, he wanted to recognise a female artist who has chronicled some of Fiji’s most important historical moments.
“Jane Ricketts in my view is an important artist in Fiji. We have many young artists, contemporary artists. We don’t have a lot of artists like Jane whose focus is on realism.”
He continues: “The other part is paying tribute to someone who has been paining for the last 30 years, [who’s] very unassuming but also recording, particularly post 1987, and into 2000, looking at that aspect of Fiji’s history, because it affected her very deeply. She wanted to record it through her paintings. And we don’t have any artists who are doing that.”
Ricketts is no longer painting, although she created one new work for the exhibition. She is still an artistic soul however, creating beautiful patchwork quilts which she gifts to family and friends.
Poet Mary Oliver has said: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
It’s a line Ricketts repeats to us, reflecting: “When you do have the opportunity to define and develop your own creativity, I think it’s very positive, it’s healing.”