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Tongan Tooth Adornment

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The exclusion of the face above the lips admits the protective nature of the photographer. 20th century ethnographic practices include looming sympathetic eyes revealing disengagement. One would assume the conscious decision to exclude eyes would omit information, yet in these highly detailed prints the opposite is true. Knowing their names through the titles, we become friends.



Ane Tonga


30 May - 28 June, 2014

Grills by Ane Tonga is a photographic series of the artist’s family members. Therefore, due to the sensitivity of this material, no images will be displayed on EyeContact - at the request of the artist.
My childhood consisted of refusing to acknowledge my grandmother’s gold. It was snug between her two front teeth and in my young mind the thought of it was repulsive. At that age gold seemed unattainable especially as a dental material. However, this changed when a teenage friend went on a family holiday to Tonga. When she came back half of her front right tooth was covered in gold melted from a family heirloom. She had a nifo koula (1). My grandmother’s dental choices now made sense.

Grills by Ane Tonga at Gus Fisher Gallery has an instant feeling of familiarity. Associate Professor Leonard Bell (The University of Auckland) introduces us to her work via wall text, establishing historical and cultural pretext. In the space we are greeted by six large metallic photographic prints mounted on Di-bond aluminum board featuring the bottom half of six female faces. Their mouths open revealing their grills or nifo koula. L-O-V-E is spelt in gold across ‘Ofa’s smile. These are accompanied by a film of friendly Pacific voices telling personal experiences of tooth adornment. Installing her relationship with the sitters and ethnographic encounter in the space, Tonga makes a gesture of transparency and accountability.

Historically, cultural practices of the Pacific have been recorded in the means of the Other. Meaning research, writing and photography is taken from a position external to the culture itself. The fantasies of the ‘noble savage’, ‘dusky maiden’ and even Mark Adams photographs of tatau come from perspectives of preexisting/historized conditions. As Linda Tuhiwai-Smith writes in Decolonising Methodologies, “It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery and the things we create and produce,….” It is this ownership of prescribed histories which is claimed to be harmful to indigenous communities. Research needs to be re-conceptualized as a duty, one endowed with the responsibilities needed to create a whole understanding.

Nifo koula is a fairly young cultural practice among Tongan people. This cosmetic trend is growing in popularity. Sharing the European signifier of gold as wealth, nifo koula is also tied to the wearer’s genealogy as the gold used often comes from family heirlooms. Grills is the first photographic archive of this cultural practice making it an essential ethnographic resource. Additionally a publication is to be released alongside this photographic series later in the year. Including more writing by Leonard Bell and curator and sister Nina Tonga. The accompanying publication and moving image suggest that for Tonga the photos are just the first point of access to a culture requiring further engagement on our part.

The thoughtfulness of the artist has lead to Ane Tonga’s successful decolonising of the lens. Restricting her choice of sitters to female family members leads to a visually preexisting trust. Photographing the face can often gift the viewer a position of power, yet these sitters are far from vulnerable. It is a stark contrast from Anne Noble’s Ruby’s room which is a sensual photographic series focusing on her daughter’s mouth. The sitters in Grills have complete control over the image, exuding pride of their adornment. The laughing and casual nature of conversation heard from the moving image work also hints at the close relationships between artist and sitter.

The exclusion of the face above the lips admits the protective nature of the photographer. 20th century ethnographic practices include looming sympathetic eyes revealing disengagement. One would assume the conscious decision to exclude eyes would omit information, yet in these highly detailed prints the opposite is true. Knowing their names through the titles, we become friends. The faces are animated, personable and possessing authority. This shared sense of power between artist, sitter and audience is most compelling in ‘Nan’. Nan sits in her living room completely out of focus wearing what could possibly be a tartan patterned outfit. In the foreground is a small table with a pink floral table cloth, on top of that her dentures sit in a small glass of water. Her two nifo koula on full display. The image sits at eye level. Nan has invited you into her house, to tell her story. Tonga in her conduct as a conscientious ethnographer, imbues the works with a sense of ease.

Regaining control of the documentation of her family and further more an entire cultural practice, Tonga’s photographs go further than the generosity of the beautiful image. Remaining empathetic to her sitters Tonga has transformed her white cube into a living document of nifo koula or Grills. A notion of the Other is very much replaced with a prideful representation of Tongan culture. Thoughtfulness has turned an ethnographic project into an intimate archive of cultural norms.

Lana Lopesi

(1) Nifo koula is a Tongan term for gold teeth.

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This Discussion has 9 comments.


Ane Tonga, 10:09 a.m. 20 June, 2014

Dear Lana,

While I acknowledge your efforts in writing this review I must address my concerns regarding the manner in which this review has been published and the lack of research. It is unfortunate that you did not accept my previous offers to meet and address my concerns before you reached the decision to publish your writing. It is this lack of consultation that has produced several inaccuracies in your piece:

-As we did not meet and I did not provide you with any information I can only assume that some the points you make are taken from other sources and it is important to credit these sources. Firstly your point relating to the genealogical connections to nifo koula has been documented in other writings of my work including Len Bell’s exhibition text and Nina Tonga’s Tonga ‘I Onopooni catalogue and it is important to site your sources as this point is not general knowledge but is new information brought to light through my project.

-I also did not give you information regarding the publication although it does appear in an interview I published for Craccum which I also note has not been credited as one of your sources. In addition, the contribution by Caroline Vercoe to the publication has been omitted.

-In your piece you claim that one of the women is named ‘Ofa however this is the title of the work and her actual name is Meleane. The title ‘Ofa, refers to the Tongan word ‘ofa, which translates to mean love and is one of the values of Tongan culture. This may have been forgivable had each of the women not introduced themselves in the video work Malimali that plays loudly alongside the photographs. Furthermore in the video work English subtitles are provided for non-Tongan speakers, which begs the question whether you really engaged or heard the ‘friendly voices’ that you mention.

-Following this paragraph you go on to imply that the titles of the works are the names of the women in your sentence “Knowing their names through the titles; we become friends”. However not all the titles gave the names of their subjects, so that this is clear I have provided the translation of the titles of my works below:

Ulu loloa– means long hair
Hinehina– means white/fairness
Hoha’a– means annoying
‘Ofa– means love
Malimali– means smile

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Ane Tonga, 10:09 a.m. 20 June, 2014

-Each image is titled and constructed to examine nifo koula in relation to notions of femininity, gender and intersections between Tongan ideals of beauty (faka’ofo’ofa) and Western concepts of beauty. These concepts that drive this project were overlooked despite being printed on the public programme handout, which is located on the left side of the gallery before you enter the exhibition. Malimali translates to mean smile but the use of this word in my title references the Malimali preventive dentistry programme at schools in Tonga. Is it possible for Eyecontact to set up a process where contributions are peer reviewed, especially with contributions using a particular cultural language or concepts to ensure they are used correctly and appropriately?

Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that we must change our approach to methodologies, not only in our art making processes but the way in which we write about our taonga to encompass the voice of the maker. Given that you are a writer of Pacific descent, I was disappointed in your choice to perpetuate a non-indigenous methodology that does not consider Mana Taonga nor includes the makers voice in the conversation, despite various offers to talanoa with you. I admit that my knowledge regarding Tongan culture is also limited, thus why this project has drawn from the expertise of a wider advisory group that consists of members from the Tongan community across New Zealand, Tonga and abroad. While you are entitled to your own reading of my work, it is imperative that those initiating the conversations approach nifo koula and aspects of Tongan culture with the integrity and care that it deserves.

I am a firm believer in open conversation and wish that this matter could have been resolved between us in person as we are not strangers to each other.

My previous offer to meet with you still stands.

Faka’apa’apa atu (with respect)
Ane Tonga

 In reply

Lana Lopesi, 5:34 p.m. 22 June, 2014

While there is no need for me to justify my perception I feel as though I must address this attack on my integrity.

1. While I have noted that your project is in many ways ground breaking, it is unfortunate that you would assume I have plagiarised such writers which I hold in high regard. I lived in a Tongan household for a number of years toward the end of my high schooling and the early years of my tertiary study. I also attended a highly Pacific populated high school. When I received my taulima a number of my Tongan friends received their nifo koula. We often talked about why we as NZ born Pacific women felt the need to receive these cultural adornments. So while you may believe the genealogical connection of nifo koula has only come to light through your project that is simply not true. However I do look forward to reading Nina Tonga’s catalogue at some point.

2. I have read John’s interview on Craccum. However, you did mention the publication in a Facebook status and at your artists talk. As you know the Pacific art community is very small and almost every member can tell you a publication is on its way. Some even know such details as to which contributors have been replaced by other contributors. So it’s forgivable in assuming this is general knowledge. It has been said that this is not a press release and nor is it a press release for the publication, so the omission of Caroline Vercoe as a contributor is irrelevant.

3. With that said, this is a review and the requirement for academic referencing is unnecessary.

4. I found the work very enjoyable when I decided the titles were the names of the photographed women. Aware that ‘ofa means love I also have a friend named ‘Ofa and it was one avenue I used to find my way into the work. While this may not be an approved reading by the artist, I was exercising my privilege as an audience member. Since this is met with such distain perhaps having the English translations on the wall labels could be important. However I did enjoy them being in Tongan only.

5. I approached your work knowing I was writing a 650 word (approx) review and so I wrote that from the angle I found most interesting which was the idea of artist as ethnographer. Therefore other ideas were omitted.

It is unfortunate my perception of your art is so distressing. I am yet to take up your offer to ‘talanoa’ as it came at the end of a very condescending private message. You have decided to question my integrity which I feel is no longer critical debate between friends and instead a personal attack. It is unfortunate it has become public but this is the end of my involvement on the matter.

Again Ane my family and I thoroughly enjoyed the work. In the spirit of learning I am thankful for an enthusiastic welcome to Eyecontact.

Ia Manuia,


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John Hurrell, 5:11 p.m. 20 June, 2014

EyeContact is not a site for public relations for artists, galleries or even cultural mores. It aims to provide independent evaluations and interpretations that often do not match the expectations of the artist. That is part of the territory of any reviewer.

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Natasha Smith, 10:46 a.m. 21 June, 2014

"EyeContact is not a site for public relations for artists, galleries or even cultural mores. It aims to provide independent evaluations and interpretations that often do not match the expectations of the artist. That is part of the territory of any reviewer."

Ane, I think that your disapproving response to Lana Lopesi's review is very patronising and unwarranted. I agree with statement made by John Hurrell above. To expect the reviewer's response to align with the artist's intentions is ludicrous and impossible.

I also don't think that Lana's response is not even scathing or that far off the mark, for you to question her integrity in writing. Reviews are individual responses, so the fact that Lana asked you for images was in itself an unusually kind and fair gesture. The fact that you did not allow this permission, despite the photographs appearing on Artsdiary and other various sources, leaves me somewhat baffled.

If the 'matter' at hand was the sensitive nature of this cultural work being misinterpreted, then perhaps it should not have been exhibited in a public arena for all to formulate individual understandings. You should know, that artists do not have that kind of control over their works and as said by John Hurrell above the purpose of a review is not for the public relations of artists, but rather room for open and critical analysis from a personal perspective and that should not be shut down by the artist. Furthermore, questioning Lana Lopesi's Pacificness by 'perpetuating a non-indigenous methodology', give me a break, that's just petty. This kind of behaviour, in response to a review discourages the audience from engaging with your work and I'm disappointed that you would take such offence to a completely valid review.


Another Pacific mixed race descent female artist.

 In reply

Ane Tonga, 10:47 a.m. 22 June, 2014

Hi Natasha,

Thank you for taking the time to generate a personal response on this matter.

As a curator and a writer, I understand that a reviewer response does not always align with that of an artist- that is a given. However, as an artist I am well within my right to take a stand when incorrect facts are circulated about my work, especially if notice was given before publishing. Not once did my previous response mention anything regarding the dissemination of my imagery of family members on the internet, instead it addressed the inaccuracies in the review many of which you have argued around. I agree, this is not a ‘negative’ review however integrity in regards to research can of course be questioned if a reviewer is re-naming subjects in an artwork and not referencing sources of my research shared with other writers. Moreover, I did not question Lana’s ‘Pacific-ness’, rather I voiced my concerns in the approach taken to writing this piece as Linda Tuhiwai-Smith was quoted but Tuhiwai-Smith’s approach to decolonizing such methodologies were not practiced during the process of publishing this review.

My exhibition has increased visitor numbers and has received very positive feedback from members of the art community, Pacific Arts community and my Tongan community who I believe will not be discouraged from engaging in future work, as they are often included in parts of the making process as consultants, experts and discussants. I do not believe that voicing my concerns on my own artwork will discourage audiences from engaging but instead generate important discussions regarding self-reflexivity and approaches to art making and critical art writing.

This is the last EyeContact response I will make on the matter. My offer to talanoa further with Lana remains and is extended to you if you wish.

Malo ‘aupito,

Reply to this thread

Janet Lilo, 8:03 p.m. 27 June, 2014

I went to a high school that offered juggling, hacky sack & fire poi as class options - so my writing is terrible. After reading the comments, I thought to myself - wow, here are three very smart Pacific women artists in a single thread. All going to either represent New Zealand at a Venice Biennale, curate major shows, write for Art News, win a Wallace award or even Walters prize one day. You should fight the power and not each other. Or maybe do have a good fight filled with arty passion - then enjoy a coffee and brownie afterwards. I would join you for that part. I love brownies. Arohanui x j

 In reply

John Hurrell, 8:33 a.m. 28 June, 2014

Trouble is, Janet, smart people tend to be independent thinkers, and a united front of solidarity suppresses different viewpoints. Perhaps it is culturally healthier to air disagreements in public - where they can be looked at in detail - than pretend they don't exist?

Janet Lilo, 9:19 p.m. 28 June, 2014

It's not what I'm saying John. I know all three women on this thread and I'm sure they 'get' that comment. All of this is actually really great and it makes me feel very excited about the future and visibility of Pacific Arts / Artists in New Zealand.

Reply to this thread

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