During the past 40 years, as immigrants have settled and new generations have been born, New Zealand has become more part of the Pacific in the most vital of ways - through blood. New Pacific New Zealand voices are ensuring contemporary art is a vital platform for exploring the complexities of feeling both of one place and another. It's a space that increasingly involves developing new ground. These artists are producing some of the most exciting experimental work in the country today.
I'd wager I'm one of many palangi who know little of the Kingdom of Tonga. The value of an exhibition like Tonga ‘i Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary then is manyfold. This is a place for artists of Tongan ancestry and their communities to consider what they might share, and what it says of their connection to the islands. It is also a place for the rest of us to understand some of the subtleties of contemporary culture around us. Curated by Nina Tonga (recently appointed to a position at Te Papa), above all the exhibition speaks of artists negotiating the spaces between things - countries, cultures, styles and artistic media. These artists have very different relationships to Tonga. At one end of the spectrum you have Kulimoe'anga Stone Maka. He emigrated from Tonga in 1997. Up large on tapa his intense black fields, vertical strips and circles marry the power of big modernist minimalism to the traditional art of ngatu, or decorated barkcloth.
At the other end is painter Julian Hooper who hasn't even visited the islands. With Tongan as well as English and Hungarian ancestry, his abstracted portraiture playfully, sketchily explores the fluidity of cultural narratives and ideas through motifs and shapes woven whimsically and adventurously together as patterns and icons.
Certainly this is no government-sponsored visual aid for Tongan tourism. This exhibition bears out that photography and video by younger Pacific Island artists takes control of documentary and stages performance that is outside of official discourse. Lucy Aukafolau's three channel video work Invisible Territories is literally, queasily all at sea. We are floating, video footage taken aboard small vessels between Tongan islands, the camera trained on the functional steering and offloading of goods. The kind of things it usually avoids. In Aukafolau's work, shot on her first visit home, there are no friendly welcomes, and palm-fringed sands remain in the distance.
Passage is sometimes at night, and uncomfortably different video screens go black for stretches of a time. It is hard to discern any rhythm. This work relishes being difficult, and this isn't easy for the viewer, but it successfully explores an unseen space, and the sense of an artist and a culture finding new ways.
SIMILARLY in the photography of Ane Tonga, Terry Koloamatangi Klavenes and Emily Mafile'o the camera gets up close and super personal, breaking the invisible barriers between objectivity and subjectivity, messing up established genre and confounding our expectations of how it should behave. In John Vea's Tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga the artist is seen patiently, lovingly on a wild beach trying to make a wall out of concrete blocks, as if it were a sand castle, before we watch it repeatedly topple before the ensuing waves. It's a simple yet powerful gesture, marred by the rather decorative device of being projected onto a temporary concrete wall itself.
Also hampered by its installation in the gallery is Vea Mafile'o's Who Will Dowse the Kingdom, marrying powerful personal footage of the 2006 riots in Nuku'alofa and interviews with men around kava circles (very difficult to hear in the gallery the day I attended). As a woman, Mafule'o creates her own space for alternative media discussion. Gently, in filming the cleared urban spaces left after the riot, she leaves room for new voices in the future.
From the work of excellence of our most senior contemporary Tongan artist Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi to the tremendous tapa of Wellington women's barkcloth-making collective Ilo Me'a Fo'ou - pattern and how it might be redefined also hold this exhibition together.
Tohi's work provides the essential message that it is in creating new bindings we create strong new structures for living.
Anchoring the exhibition is Glen Wolfgramm's terrific large painting Islander, where patterns expressing both his Tongan and Irish ancestry are put into a rather active abstract expressionistic particle accelerator. Shifting planes of visual information are in hyperdrive, a digital fractal meltdown together of the computer gaming environment and the landscape of Auckland city.
All is lashed together by strident mark-making that celebrates the old and the new coming together, creating new spaces, while also somehow expressing an anxiety about what all this melding of forms is bringing.
Tonga ‘i Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary, Pataka Museum, Porirua, until August 24 -------------
- The Dominion Post