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Two Tongan Contemporary Art Publications

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Covers of Tonga 'I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary and Tauhi Vā Double-page spread of Tonga 'I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary Double-page spread of Tonga 'I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary Double-page spread of Tauhi Vā

An argument can be made that everything we do is reactive, in response to a thought, the weather, a conversation. If so, then art too is reactive. 'Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary' reacts to a few things: firstly the 2008 exhibition Samoa Contemporary at the same gallery; secondly the lack of Tongan curation of Tongan practices; thirdly - most significantly - a prescriptive opinion of what Tongan contemporary art should be.

Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary

Contributors: Helen Kedgley, Nina Kingahoi Tonga.
Design: Sarah Maxey
28 pp, colour illustrations
Published by Pataka, Porirua, in April 2014 for the exhibition. Free

 

Tauhi Vā
Edited by Dr Billie Lythberg
Contributors: Dr Billie Lythberg, Semisi Fetokai Potauaine, Hufanga Professor ‘Okustino Mahina and artists.
Design: Dean Scholey
36 pp, colour illustrations
Published by Fresh Gallery, Otara August 2014 for the exhibition. Free

The closing of an exhibition is many times at the end of an art work’s lifespan. With re-exhibition or purchase comes a new context where the humble object of the catalogue then becomes an essential living document.

Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary at Pataka Art + Museum (12 April - 24 August, 2014) and Tauhi Vā at Fresh Gallery Otara (29 August - 4 October, 2014) are two exhibitions of contemporary Tongan art appearing within months of each other. Both exhibitions polarised what Tongan contemporary practice looks like and both produced supplementary catalogues.

The publication from Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary is itself a beautiful object. Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary, as the title suggests is just that, Contemporary Tongan art. Curator Nina Tonga presents a wide survey of practices, fighting against prescriptive views of culture based art and acknowledging diversity as a measure for contemporaneity. Matching this curatorial premise is the simplicity of design and confident colour and type choices. The contemporaneity of the contrasting matte grey stock with an embossed coated orange title is a powerful option for the cover.

Nina Tonga opens with the catalogue’s second essay, Tonga Ki’i Piliote Kuo Fonu Monu’ia: Tonga only a dot yet full of accolade, a systematic break down of the essay’s title. By explaining the metaphorical nature of the Tongan language we come to realise the complexities of culture, and how culture transcends location, generational differences and thought processes. Instead of actively not pinpointing what Tongan practice looks like, it affirms the breadth and depth of what it is.

The publication’s content itself is curated. An obviously non alphabetical list of artists causes you to contemplate the order. Starting with senior artists Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi and Dagmar Dyck, the publication goes on to reveal subtle harmonies between the artists displayed on facing pages. For example, artists Lucy ‘Aukafolau and John Vea both have timebased practices, and while their works are very different they both focus on the strength of the Pacific ocean, its potential for destruction and connection.

Tauhi Vā’s supplementary publication adopts more of a non-design aesthetic. On stock standard white paper with a thicker white cover, the design principles match the tough academic writing of the catalogue’s essays. 

While it is a tough job for Tonga ‘I Onopooni to provide an accurate survey of a single culture’s contemporary art, the challenge for Tauhi Vā is explaining the notion of vā or socio-spatial relations. Its curatorial premise is perhaps harder to represent in a relatively small publication. This premise is said to explore how the artists “tend their relationships with people and through art, across time and space. The resulting works give material from socio-spatial relations.” Other than asserting social-spatial relations as a key of Tongan contemporary practices I am still uncertain of what is actually meant by the term ‘social-spatial relations’.

The exhibition presents the work of the Auckland-based Tongan Artists’ collective No’o Fakataha who are introduced by the poem YOU & I THE ORIGIN OF TAUHI VĀ (1), by Semisi Fetokai Potuaine. The poem asserts beauty, harmony and symmetry as the trinity for art making. The ngatu (2) strong exhibition reasserts this trinity. Furthering the allegory is an explanation over the page claiming that beauty lies in good socio-spatial relations or vā lelei; so social spatial relations are the idea that nature, mind and society all meet at a common point that is a zero-point or noa. How nature, mind and society are to meet beauty, harmony and symmetry I am still unsure of, when trying to get my head around these ideals.

An essay from Dr Billie Lythberg follows. Lythberg starts to comment on the coincidence of a ngatu heavy exhibi-tion, going on to explain the ‘performativity’ of ngatu making. Lythberg, one of the two curators, portrays what seems like a completely separate curatorial premise. While offering a plethora of new ideas, the writing in this catalogue is disjointed and confusing, if not unfriendly - academic overcompensation that presents a vivid contrast with the welcoming nature of No’o Fakataha and guests.

An argument can be made that everything we do is reactive, in response to a thought, the weather, a conversation. If so, then art too is reactive. Tonga ‘I Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary reacts to a few things: firstly the 2008 exhibition Samoa Contemporary at the same gallery; secondly the lack of Tongan curation of Tongan practices; thirdly - most significantly - a prescriptive opinion of what Tongan contemporary art should be. Tauhi Vā on the other hand defensively uses academic writing to justify traditional making approaches as contemporary art. Reactive to each other, both shows confidently assert contrasting perceptions of Tongan contemporary practice, two exciting presentations for New Zealand contemporary art.

Lana Lopesi

(1). Tongan translation ‘KO KOE AU & AU KOE KO E TUPUNGA ‘O E TAUHI VA by Hufanga Professor ‘Okusitino Mahina
(2). Ngatu: Barkcloth

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This Discussion has 1 comment.

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John Hurrell, 8:52 a.m. 19 March, 2015

Here is a Q&A between Lana Lopesi and myself about EyeContact: http://hashtag500words.com/2015/03/11/wwjd-in-conversation-with-john-hurrell/

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