Pacific Postcards

Ella Kaale Pacific Presents

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Michel Tuffery’s “Pisupo Lua Afe”

In 1994, New Zealand mixed media artist Michel Tuffery unveiled “Pisupo Lua Afe”, also known as “Corned Beef 2000”. This sculpture bears the life-size figure of a cow, synthesized from flattened cans of corned beef. The medium is a reference to the Polynesian tradition of gifting canned corned beef on special occasions. This custom began with pea soup, shorted to “pisupo” in Samoan dialect, and was gradually replaced by the beef as food imports to the Pacific Islands increased and a dependency on Western goods was formed, causing a dramatic increase in nutrition-related health problems in communities. The cow itself references the capacity of cattle operations to destroy fragile island ecosystems. The traits depicted in Tuffery’s “Pisupo Lua Afe” exemplify American ideas regarding the Pacific in that the piece demonstrates the forced dependence on Western civilization and the permanent alteration of the natural environment in the Pacific, both of which were brought about by colonialism and imperialism, especially after World War II.

“Pisupo Lua Afe” expresses the reliance on Western aid and culture that was formed in Pacific Island nations in the post-war era. In “How the Pacific World Became West”, Mary L. Dudziak discusses the role the Pacific played in World War II and after, in that the United States saw the Pacific World as part of its national security domain (164), and the acquisition and control of these territories would move the western edge of American power closer to Asia. These islands and atolls became purely a line of defense to the United States, building states and military bases to impose republican values across the region. In “The Effect of Trade and Trade Policy on Diet and Health in the Pacific Islands”, Anne Marie Thow and Wendy Snowden discuss the aftermath of American occupation and control of the Pacific world, citing the high levels of development aid available to countries and territories, with Pacific states having some of the highest levels of aid per capita in the world (Thow and Snowden 160). This aid often arrives in the form of food, which has contributed heavily to a change in dietary preferences and a reliance on imports. Until the early 1900s, Pacific diets consisted of indigenous foods, based on staples such as roots and fruits, as well as a widespread tradition of fishing and farming. In both the colonial and subsequent war eras, negative Western attitudes towards the traditional diets replaced them with “modern” diets based on imported goods, which were typically low-fibre and high in refined carbohydrates, salt, and fat (Thow and Snowden 148). As early as the 1950s, indigenous communities expressed preference for imported Western goods, fueled by matters of food insecurity, convenience, and urbanization. According to Thow and Snowden, this dramatic increase in consumption of imports is directly correlated with a widespread nutritional transition and spike in diet-related chronic illnesses such as obesity and diabetes in the Pacific (156). This trend results in detrimental effects for Pacific communities, such as overall lower life expectancies, higher rates of child malnutrition, and higher rates of infant mortality. Tuffery expresses this in “Pisupo Lua Afe”, with the choice of medium being cans of corned beef. Corned beef became one of the most popular Western imports in the Pacific, given as a gift on special occasions. The frequent consumption of corned beef along with other fatty imports greatly contributed to obesity in Pacific communities, with the top ten most obese countries in the world by percentage of obese adults being Pacific Island countries, according to the World Population Review. The repeated usage of the cans in the sculpture also references the rapid rate at which this type of good was consumed, forming a dependence on Western imports, implying that many Pacific diets consist mostly of fatty pre-packaged foods.

One of the most crucial impacts brought by Western dietary dependence is a loss in cultural traditions. Since colonists began arriving in the Pacific, whites have forced island communities to shed their indigenous customs in favor of Western standards of civilization. This was especially perpetuated by the United States, as many believed it to be their duty as Americans to spread republican values of democracy to the “uncivilized” peoples of the world, and to enforce American societal systems across both land and sea, thus overriding pre-existing cultural, societal, and political structures present in these communities. Dudziak discusses how the projection of American power in the Pacific after World War II resulted in requiring native peoples to migrate elsewhere or to accept the imposed military governance of their homeland, as they were seen as simple, primitive people blocking the natural progression of civilization (173), causing natives to lose access to their traditional lands and the customs they practiced there. Furthermore, she argues the racism of whites enabled them to see native peoples as lacking the personality of the civil standard, and therefore were not deserving of sovereignty until they could achieve that standard (172), which forced natives to shed traditional ways to meet the Western status quo. This lack of respect for indigenous islanders also resulted in nations such as the Marshall Islands being used for nuclear testing, which resulted in permanent changes to the landscape, rendering certain historic staples and delicacies inedible due to radiation levels, such as the coconut crab (Dudziak 174). As native peoples in the Pacific were forced to accept Westernization, the traditional staple diets based on organic materials available for cultivation in the landscape was shed in favor of convenient, pre-packaged Western imports. This transition resulted in a loss of cultural traditions of farming and cultivation, and most crucially, a loss in skillful practices such as fishing. Tuffery references this shift in both the cow itself and the medium of beef cans, as the introduction of cattle to the Pacific as well as the increase of imported goods directly contributed to the loss of the traditional dietary tradition and skills. Furthermore, the canned goods replaced longstanding cultural customs such as the gifting of “pisupo”, dramatically shifting dietary preferences and lowering nutritional standards. Tuffery’s target audience for the sculpture is Pacific children, encouraging them to take the initiative to care for their health and to unlearn the new standards Westernization has forced upon them in favor of the traditions that sustained Pacific Islanders and the ecosystems surrounding them for generations.

Additionally, “Pisupo Lua Afe” expresses the permanent alteration of the natural environment brought by Western arrival and occupation. Just as foreigners brought diseases that decimated indigenous peoples, the cattle and livestock they brought with them spread diseases that destroyed fragile island ecosystems. In the atomic era, the Pacific was used for nuclear testing by the United States, specifically in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands, as the vastness of the ocean and islands encapsulated a useless wasteland needed to test the devastating weapons. Dudziak argues that human residents were deemed merely an “annoyance” during the testing, and wild animals were hardly considered in the potential negative impacts of nuclear testing (170). The Marshall Islands were the most hydrogen-bombed area in the world until President John F. Kennedy banned atmospheric nuclear testing, but unfortunately the virtually irreversible damage had been done to the environment (Dudziak 174). The landscape was so uninhabitable and polluted by radiation that the Marshallese were never able to resettle Bikini Atoll, rendering them what Dudziak calls “nuclear nomads” (174). The natural features of the atoll that had sustained populations such as the coconut crab were now unsafe to consume due to staggering radiation levels, increasing the already high risk of cancer caused by radiation exposure in the area. This example of the impact of American imperialism serves as a microcosm of the United States’ unrelenting grip on the Pacific and the “Third World” as a whole. The U.S. and other imperial countries continue to inadvertently degrade the natural environment of the Pacific to this day due to the climate crisis, an impending doom caused by industrialized countries emitting vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, causing global warming, the Pacific Islands to “sink” as the oceans rise, and for aquatic ecoystems to be destroyed by ocean acidification and excessive waste. This phenomenon is exacerbated by countries like the United States’ failure to respond to the crisis, potentially leaving all Pacific Islands uninhabitable and underwater in the coming decades. The problem is also made worse by the ways that the U.S. and the developed world interact with the Pacific, treating it as a highway for mass oceanic trade, where both the journey the products make and the products themselves, such as automobiles traveling from Asia to the U.S. on cargo ships, have the capacity to exponentially increase carbon emissions. Tuffery responds to these threats of environmental change in the Pacific landscape in the visual contrast presented by the solidity, hard-edginess, and weight of the aluminum against the apparent softness and gentleness of the cow, conveying that capacity beef and dairy cattle have to harm island ecosystems like they did when they were first introduced. Furthermore, Tuffery specifically uses recycled cans, referencing the massive amounts of waste created not only by island economies, but the global economy as well, and how this waste affects the Pacific. A staggering portion of plastics and other wastes are floating in the Pacific in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and keystone species of island and ocean ecosystems are dying due to consumption and interaction with waste, causing the ecosystems to collapse entirely. “Pisupo Lua Afe” demonstrates a simple and creative method of recycling for Tuffery’s target audience of children, repurposing waste for both artistic purposes and societal awareness.

“Pisupo Lua Afe” represents the destructive changes brought to the Pacific Islands by colonialism, imperialism, and war through the lens of the average Pacific Islander. These shifts can be categorized into a forced dependence on Western aid and imports, brought by a suffocating trend American occupation and democratization of longstanding island communities in the battle for global power before, during, and after World War II, as well as the permanent alteration, and in some cases, the uninhabitability of island ecosystems caused by Western hands. Tuffery encourages the viewer to analyze the impacts of imperialism on the largest scale to the smallest, from a widespread regional loss of culture to a transition in gift giving customs, from global waste to a singular recycled can.

Works Cited
Dudziak, Mary L. World War II and the West It Wrought. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 2020. Chapter 7: “How the Pacific World Became West.”
Thow, Anne Marie, and Wendy Snowden. Trade, Food, Diet, and Health : Perspectives and Policy Options. Chichester (West Sussex) ; Ames (Iowa), Blackwell, 2010. Chapter 9: “The Effect of Trade and Trade Policy on Diet and Health in the Pacific Islands.”
Tuffery, Michel. Pisupo Lua Afe (Corned Beef 2000), 1994, Accessed 1 Nov. 2021.
World Population Review. “Obesity Rates by Country 2020.”, 2020,

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