Telly Tuita

“We [artists] retell, we speculate, we investigate, we chronicle, we create, we instigate, we fabricate, we activate, we procrastinate, and we decorate.” – Telly Tuita

Wellington-based artist Telly Tuita was born in Tonga in 1980 and immigrated to Sydney at age nine. Living in Australia for most of his life, Tuita’s disconnect from his Tongan heritage has long informed his practice.  Exploring his cultural identity and complex relationship with his ancestral home has led him to form a distinct visual language, Tongpop.

Tongpop is Tuita’s self-described hybrid aesthetic, born from the artist’s love of bright bold hues, alongside traditional Tongan ngatu patterns and religious iconography. Tuita navigates ideas of home and belonging, borrowing familiar motifs, materials and methods of production, challenging idealised notions of the Pacific Islands.

Scouring secondhand shops and dollar stores, Tuita creates assemblages of thrifted homewares and holiday trinkets with a playful pop colour palette. The works serve as a reminder of unique cultural practices and deities that have been lost over time, here they are reinvented through Tuita’s lens. Tuita creates a new narrative for the found objects, recasting them as relics of the modern age.

Telly Tuita completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at Western Sydney University (1999-2003) before undertaking a Bachelor of Art Education at the University of New South Wales (2004). In 2011, Tuita completed a Master’s in Special Education through the University of Sydney.  Following his study, Tuita has worked as an art teacher and within special education whilst maintaining his own art practise and exhibiting in group shows throughout Australia.

Since moving to New Zealand, Tuita has exhibited in Hamilton and Wellington and has been a finalist in a number of art awards including the National Contemporary Art Award and the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award 3D. Objectspace

Telly Tuita: Telly Vision (long)

In July, Tauranga Art Gallery was installing its big rainbow-art show, Mānawatia Takatāpui/Defending Plurality. It was only half up, but Stephen Cleland, the Gallery’s new Director, walked me through. I recognised a few artists, but found myself transfixed by four large photos by one I didn’t know. Telly Tuita posed in photo-studio–style sets with colourful faux-tapa painted brown-paper backdrops, wearing crazy, improvised costumes, surrounded by suggestive props. Based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, his images were part regal, part op shop; a bit kids’ play, a bit mardi gras; with a dash of disco and a pinch of serial killer. I was surprised when my host told me the artist was from Wellington, my town. When I got back, I tracked him down on Facebook. After lockdown, we met in the Lyall Bay bungalow he shares with his husband and their chow chow. Over brunch, he told me his story.

Tuita is 41. He was born in Tonga in 1980. He’s never met his mum, who deserted him at birth. As a child, he was whangaiied around, between family members. When he was nine, his grandfather thought he would be better off with his dad, now living in Australia with his Pālangi wife. So, the little boy—who didn’t speak English, hadn’t had much schooling, and hadn’t been off the island—was put on a plane and plunged into another world. He had to learn new words and new ways, and he met his dad for the first time. ‘I was told I was being sent to a better life, but I had no concept of what that would be’, he says.

It wasn’t all roses. He had difficulty relating to his new life, and especially to his religious stepmom. ‘She thought it’d be great to bring over a little jungle boy from Tonga to civilise him, but, by then, I’d already lived a thousand lives’, he says. ‘Needless to say, I wasn’t quiet or agreeable. I wanted to do things that weren’t acceptable.’ They fought. ‘She used to threaten me for misbehaving, saying, “I’ll send you back to Tonga!” And I’d say. “Send me back! Send me back!” She kicked me out when I was fourteen. Maybe, by then, she had a feeling that I was gay.’

Despite such early bumps, Tuita did well. Being a party boy, Sydney was a pleasure. He went to university, becoming the first in his family to graduate. He did a teaching degree, becoming a teacher; then a master’s in special ed., becoming a deputy headmaster. All the while, he made art, riffing on memories of his Tongan past. In 2017, he met his husband to be—a boy from Pōneke visiting for the weekend. They met in the morning: Tuita was heading home from a party, Hoani had just got up to go for a jog. Tuita relocated to Aotearoa in 2017 and they married in 2020 and. His plan was to teach, but Hoani suggested he make art full time. ‘It was like a child being told he could go into a massive lolly shop and eat whatever he wants’, Tuita says.

Tuita makes paintings, sculptures, and photos—and hybridises them. His works are full of Pacific Island tropes, and are busy with pattern and colour. He’s no minimalist—more is more. And he’s not averse to overhanging—his shows tend to be packed, ‘all in’. He calls his approach TongPop. ‘It’s my two-sided brain, Tong and pop. Tong is the boy from zero to nine, and pop from nine to now’, he says. ‘What’s the difference?, I ask. ‘Everything’, he says.

When I ask him what life in Tonga had been like, he alludes to family complications, but doesn’t elaborate. ‘You’re lucky that I’ve sorted out my trauma, otherwise I’d be blubbering my eyes out right now’, he says, half joking. But then, he offers a more idyllic account. ‘It was exactly what an Islander life should be. Like most village kids, I did chores, I spent time in nature. I didn’t have any notion of the west. I remember the first time I saw a TV in Tonga, we were all crammed around the window of someone’s house. It was the late 1980s, but it felt more like the 1950s.’ Tuita’s Tonga is a child’s memory. He says, ‘I don’t have any pictures of myself from then. The first time I had my photo taken was for my passport to go to Australia.’

Curator Leafa Wilson coined the term ‘cold islanders’ to describe Pacific Island artists based in Aotearoa. As Polynesians, she says, they relate to Māori, yet they have tauiwi status. They are ‘cold’, she says: away from the warmth of the islands literally and left out in the cold metaphorically. In the 1990s, Rosanna Raymond of the Pacific Sisters had already summed up this sensibility, saying ‘We don’t stare at coconut trees—we stare at motorways.’ Cold islanders often idealise their distant homeland, and Tuita titled a 2020 solo show TongPop Nostalgia. Nostalgia is a malaise. A yearning to reconnect with a perfect, fantasy past generates a proliferation of signifiers of Tonganness. Tuita’s TongPop is part of a globally prevalent art idiom defined by the collision of indigenous and pop sensibilities, where colonised and colonising rub together, where traditional, grounded, oral cultures dance with global mass media, that great leveller. The spectre of a secure identity and the allure of shiny new things compete for attention. Protect me from what I want! I wonder how TongPop would go down in Tonga.

Tuita’s gay sensibility offers another turn of the screw. His 2020 painting The Captain is perverse. He explains, ‘It’s Captain Cook as a young man, based on a marble sculpture by a French artist. I like it because he looks like a sexy twink. It’s so un–Captain Cook.’ Tuita’s defence comes preprepared: ‘Maybe it’s a case of Stockholm Syndrome!’, he suggests. In The Captain, the stylised carved-wooden features of the Tongan goddess Hikule’o are superimposed over Cook’s cold marble ones—two totemic fetish figures going head to head. After the introduction of Christianity into Tonga, worship of Hikule’o was outlawed, yet she persists as a ubiquitous image of Tonga. She crops up throughout Tuita’s work, sometimes as a mask he wears. In The Captain, it’s like we are caught in the middle of a filmic dissolve between Cook and Hikule’o, but we don’t know which way it’s going. Has he usurped her or is she overwriting him? The work is more question than answer.

Tuita conjures with here and there, inside and outside, high and low. Like many artists from colonised cultures, he has a love-hate relationship with the early colonial images he references. Such images exemplify an idealising, exoticising gaze, but also provide a real bridge with the past. ‘It’s like drugs. I had my first hit with John Webber prints’, he says, referring to the artist that accompanied Cook on his third voyage. He adds, ‘I always laugh that some of the most sexy photographs of Islanders were made by missionaries.’

At first glance, Tuita’s art looks idyllic, but it can be veined with complexity. ‘I’m not here to sing “Kumbaya”’, he says. The tableaux vivant he stages in his back yard with  photographer Nick Shackelton allow him to embody and act out his conflicts, making himself their vanishing point, with everything converging on his body. In the Four Horsemen photos, he matches the dark riders (Famine, Conquest, War, and Death) with the seasons (autumn, winter, spring, summer). It’s a calendar shoot, a perverse look book. Tuita’s avatars wear elaborate headdresses and superhero capes. One wears a blue skull mask, one raises a glass of wine. Another wears trainers and footy shorts and is draped in diaphanous pink tulle, queering the iconic look of Aussie yobs draped in Australian flags. Are his characters hobos, are they kings, are they hobo kings?

Archetypes pervade Tuita’s work. His cast includes a TongPop Ubermench (Superman with a Tongan headdress) and Aphrodite type (with a Hikule’o head riding doves), plus Queen Sālote, Queen Elizabeth II, and Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. Right now, he’s planning a new cycle of seven self-portrait photos. He outlines the plan for me, reading from his workbook: ‘The Terrorist is immortalised as the Hero. The Celebrity is always the Lover. The Mogul overpowers the King. Warriors of the Right and Left! The Jester is a mask for queers. The Bloke a Hero. The Immigrant is a forced Warrior.’ It’s like he’s creating a TongPop tarot.

Tuita’s work hasn’t been seen enough. He’s shown with Precinct 35 in Wellington and Weasel in Hamilton, but doesn’t have a dealer—not yet. His work has been more visible in public spaces, including Objectspace and Tautai in Auckland, and CoCA in Christchurch—and he enters art prizes like an addict. He’s just done a commission for Wellington City Council, where his imagery will be enlarged and wrapped around buildings, impossible to ignore. His next show is a Wellington pop up organised by the concept store Kaukau, with artists Sione Monu and Pusi Urale from Moana Fresh in Auckland. The theme is ‘matala’—blossoming. He’s contributing a ‘drag-queen flower’ sculpture, among other things. And he has his first residency coming up, with Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland.

‘Someone called my work window dressing’, Tuita said. ‘It was the best compliment. Going past David Jones when I was young, I thought “that’s art”.’ Robert Leonard.