When Auckland curator and art historian Nina Tonga wrote a preview for Pataka’s Samoa Contemporary in 2008, she looked forward to the day when she would write about contemporary Tongan art. As a New Zealand-born Tongan, she hoped to see an exhibition that explored the contribution of artists with Tongan heritage in New Zealand Aotearoa. Six years later, it’s finally happened — Nina is the guest curator for Tonga Contemporary.
But back to Samoa Contemporary for a minute… In 2008 I could have sworn that work about cultural identity was beginning to get tired. Wrong. SC was fresh and engaging. It was more about connection to place than the much-flogged ‘identity’ conundrum. And it introduced a couple of new artists not seen before at this end of Te Ika-a-Māui. Tonga Contemporary takes a similar starting point.
I asked Tonga how contemporary art was received in Tonga. That felt like a clumsy question, so I backtracked by explaining that where I’m from, Southland, contemporary art is looked on with suspicion and misunderstanding. She told me that by necessity Tongans are outward-looking, that the arts in their most general sense were central to Tongan society, and that the four-yearly Pacific Arts Festival attended by nations throughout the Pacific had also reinforced the value and importance of the arts there.
A sense of proximity to, and distance from, Tonga informs much of the work in Tonga Contemporary. Most of the artists in the exhibition are based in Auckland; four were born in Tonga, and everyone else is from New Zealand. For Vea Mafile’o and Lucy Aukafolau, a sense of distance has meant the need to establish a relationship through visits to their ancestral homeland.
Mafile’o was in Tonga during the 2006 riots that delayed the crowning of the incoming king. Her resulting video work documents the riots as they unfolded. It provides a picture of the events not seen on mainstream media, hinting at the changing socio-political landscape. In Aukafolau’s video work, a coastal waterline is projected onto a cinder-block wall — like wall-cam on the side of a fale. It documents a first trip to her father’s homeland, the Ha’apai Islands, a group of islands to the north of Tongatapu.
As a recognised hub for contemporary Pacific art, New Zealand plays a key role in the development and support of Pacific artists. Senior sculptor Filipe Tohi, for instance, has major public commissions in Auckland and New Plymouth. His work in this exhibition explores less permanent materials but is underpinned by his ongoing interest in traditional lashing methods.
Well-known artist Julian Hooper is also included in the show — Hooper has a Tongan great-great-grandmother in his whakapapa. His brightly coloured watercolours collage together Pacific shapes and images that channel and re-create a Pacific aesthetic.
Other artists in the show include photographers Ane Tonga, Emily Mafile’o and Terry Koloamatangi Klavenes, printmaker Dagmar Dyck, and painter Glen Wolfgramm. Tonga Contemporary is on at Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, Porirua, throughout April.[info]
Curatorial intern Emma Ng’s exhibition Everyday Fiction at the Dowse brings together work that imagines everyday life in other times and places. It includes pieces by jeweller Kirsten Haydon, an installation by Andy Irving and Keila Martin, colonial frocks by Jo Torr, collages by Sarah Lee, a digital work by SWAMP and Tiago Rorke, an installation by Bekah Carran, and prints by Marian Maguire. And I mentioned it last time, but it doesn’t hurt to read things twice: don’t miss Slip Cast — fabulous ceramic objects — also at the Dowse. Both of these exhibitions run throughout April.[/info]