NORTH ADAMS — A new body of work by artist Joshua Ostraff captures an experience that can almost be described as magical; the stuff of legend though the medium of gallery art.
Ostraff's parents made documentary films, which brought the family to live in a village in Tonga. Ostraff recalls a man named Hiko, whom he didn't know very well, but who, when Ostraff was in his early teens, was the center of a spectacle that has inspired Ostraff's current installation at MCLA Gallery 51, "Ofa Atu: A Fisherman's Tale of Two Communities."
"A lot of people in the village kept telling me `you've got to go down to the docks because there's all this tuna. Hiko called them,'" Ostraff said. "So we went down there and there he was and there was all this fish. People were gathering them."
This was not the first time Hiko had called skipjack tuna — or "Atu" in Tongan. He had done so many years before after a hurricane hit the islands and created a desperate food shortage.
"During the night he had this dream that this Tongan prince who knew how to call tuna came to him," said Ostraff, "and told him how to do this and told him there were rules that he had to follow and if he broke them he wouldn't be able to call the fish again until the people had changed. So he then goes out and calls the fish when there weren't any food supplies coming in after the hurricane."
Ostraff says that calling fish — literally calling them and bringing them back to be distributed as food — connects to a traditional Tongan story about the first king, whose youngest son learns to call tuna after they save him from drowning. Ostraff says there are several variations of this story.
Ostraff hadn't thought about it in years, but when his younger brother began quizzing the family about their Tongan experience as part of his MFA thesis, Ostraff began to think more about it, especially in context of what it meant to his life now. One thing he did know was that he needed to paint fish — a lot of fish.
"I've worked on (a) large scale before but I didn't have the time or the resources to build large panels," he said. "When you've got all this fish, (you can make) smaller panels but they could be displayed together (to make) a larger piece. At the exhibition, you'll see (that) the panels that depict the fish are very much connected. You see them as an installation, one thing belonging together, though each one is a completed composition on its own, too."
Ostraff also wanted to involve the community, just like Hiko did. As part of Downstreet Art in the summer of 2016, Ostraff inmvited people in North Adams come to the gallery and create their own silkscreen prints of tuna. This, Ostraff says, deepened the connection among viewers of the art, the art itself and him.
"People who printed with us thought and interacted with my own work differently because they were having their own experience," he said. "They made something. They wanted to know why they were making that thing. They tended to spend more time thinking and asking and looking at the narrative and the work.
"All those people have been invited to come back to take their print home with them. In a way, it's symbolic of the (actual) fish that Hiko caught (and) the people took."
One of the miracles of "Ofa Atu" is its scope. Ostraff was witness to something that might never have been known outside its immediate region but for the recall of his brother, which spurred Ostraff to replicate and commemorate the isolated event and spread it out beyond its original borders. It becomes a true legend. Its significance is most important within the context of the person telling the narrative.
"I think in our American way, we want to know which is the most accurate, which is the most truthful, what really happened," said Ostraff. "One time I asked a storyteller ... about this and he said ... that sometimes it's not about which story is more right or wrong, but what you learn about the storyteller based on the way they're telling the story. It says something about them."
IN THE GALLERY
What: OFA ATU — A Fisherman's Tale of Two Communities." An exhibition by artist Josh Ostroff
Who: Berkshire Cultural Resource Center
Where: MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St., North Adams
When: Now through Feb. 19
Gallery hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4