Andy Leleisi’uao, KAMOAN MINE, Survey Exhibition curated by Ben Bergman, May 2 – July 14 2019, TSB Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland, New Zealand.
Andy Leleisi’uao’s Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience, A Puzzling Visionary Tale.
An essay, written by a Papa’a (European) who knows neither Aoteroa nor Pacific art nor Samoan Va, must be treated with care. Nevertheless, in all abstraction, it can be argued that art essentially arises from the objective appropriation and subsequent subjective concretisation of a metaphysical worldview. Intentionally or unconsciously, an artist uses or comments on existing concepts, forms, colours and images and relates his worldview to how he/she experiences, man-made or found visual culture in nature, reality. Although Andy Leleisi’uao’s sense of life is certainly incorporated in his canvases, the artist looks to the future. In doing so, he observes, engages and interprets processes of living and projects it into the spiritual building of an alternative world full of existential (de)connectivity and profound harmony.
With his new series, A Diasporic pulse of Faith and Patience, paintings made while on residency in New York, Leleisi’uao lets go of a conditioned socio-cultural identity and delivers an intellectual expression of choices and conflicts rhythmically reflecting the industry of living in (de)constructed netherworlds. The mind’s eye is aspirated into enigma’s and secrets which ontologically thematize notions of being(s), so universal that they transcend culture, gender, race and ideology. Before, the New Zealand artist presumed to speak for a lost generation but now, the Zen-master with Samoan roots cultivates his own graphic language and overloads our sense of sight with universal fantasies about compassion, integration, participation and unification. Tapa- samouraï Zig-zagging, the spectator plunges into an ambivalent rubsicube that, with every 180° turn, inspires hope for a new utopia.
On a metaphysical level, the James Wallace Paramount Award winner questions how our material reality is constructed and unconsciously relates to our in-between position namely the constant flux of going somewhere and nowhere. Leleisi’uao’s geometrically scattered compositions, his formal choices, humouristic accidents, which are essentially visual dialogues between representation and void, figure and space, solid and fluid, bear this metaphysical dimension. The formal set-up, reminiscent of Tapa designs, passes through a dualism namely the Dionysic and Apollonic. The ever-returning lines, grids, (dis)figured figures and objects, which are full of physical and spiritual movement, are an expression of the search for a balance between these opposing forces.
Although one could argue that his earlier work is late 80’s neo-expressionistic art remixed with neo-figurative and neo-realistic traits while sporadically borrowing from the panPolynesian/ Pacific iconography, a person can declare that this new series, exhibited in their entirety at Bergman Gallery (Rarotonga), defies every structural categorization. Andy has proudly made from his iconography, a personal and individual creation and the resulting aesthetic experience is one of hybridity, even one of de-aestheticization. The artist replaces the appearance of order with the appearance of predominantly black and white controlled chaos, maintaining a platonic faith in the mystical contest between form and formless, between color and non-color while at the same time rejecting the classical formulas by which “tasteful art” is produced.
His sophisticated shape of disorder, the marked zones of contrasting, continuously changing geometric compositions, are analyzable as a part-to-whole relationship. However, since all the spaces in the painting(s) are connected with each other, the artist is also representing temporal and spatial nuances of the indefinable Samoan concept of Va. In his work the Va is embodied as a dynamic “in between” space where the human condition can be explored in terms of relationships.The interconnection is attained by use of graphic black grids, a tool to give his worldview and its inhabitants timeless activities, a continuous structure without relying on chronological order. In that sense, Leleisi’uao is providing a road map along which viewers can travel in parallel worlds and discover (a)rhythmic stories of us floating in the ever-evolving space “between all things which defines us and makes us part of the unity that is all”. The use of this illusionary pictorial space, holding entities and things together in this self-referencing unity, continue with a random sequence or simultaneity that makes it possible to experience the whole exhibit differently at different times.
One shadowed shape, symbolically wiped out with his fingers, of a being is balanced, modified or stimulated by the formal differentiation of the context and these in turn are played off against or with the whole canvas. The flowing anthropomorphic movements, all interconnected, derived from the rich surface, slowly neutralize one another. But not everything is anthropomorphic: machines imitate animals and insects, people imitate animals, airplanes could be birds, submarines could be fish, people could be statues, etc. There is no certainty in this theatrical spectacle awakening all senses. The only certainty is that a Hammer, Spray can, Corona bottle, Violin, together with Origami papers, Chess pieces and Jellyfish are cheeky chameleons waiting to be discovered.
A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience formally reverses the traditional relationship between biology and technology and accentuates that time and space are lived rather than recorded. After the visual storm, a calmer stasis results, balanced and sublime, in which narrative spaces operate not only at a physical and relational level but also metaphorically to describe the frenzy of the human spirit. White spaces become warped positives, their black edges are seen as abysses, other worlds, phases, dropping far behind the white planes of possibility, while the hues of red, orange, blue and brown accentuate the allusions, hallucinations, limitations, expansions and contradictions of the artist’s own mind – grasping multiple times, places and spaces.
The never ending play between space(s) and time makes the series as open and fluid as the shapes and meanings of our everyday experiences, a timeless illustration in which each visual grid, each figure, each object has a redolent poetry of his own speaking, about shared genealogy, social sacrifice, transcendence and the uncertain visual identity of art and life. By overloading beings and magical markings with a sense of geometrical framing, by hosting “dark” memories of the past and by welcoming “readymade” accidents as flashbacks to the present, the talented artist is trying to shape the time-space continuum. In re-phrasing the form of the formlessness, Andy is swiftly moving back through the past to the visions of an imagined and hoped for future while capturing presents of the present.
The viewer must filter through these multiple realms in order gain a comprehensible, yet always unsatisfactory, understanding of the series’ complex entirety. Aesthetically experiencing the paintings is one thing, but his real interest is less in what the images display than in how they function: drawing viewers in, entrapping them and awakening particular responses. Intellectually confronting yourself with the paintings’ layered questions makes it possible to connect far-fetched philosophical constructs to the paintings’ far-beyond reaching representational field.
The interchangeability of form and content gives rise to a new pictorial space. A cosmic space, an articulated form of Va as a reality that is apparently transient yet increasingly tangible the more one knows and sees, that can be further conceptualized through Plato’s theory of ideas and forms. Plato believed that reality is not a matter of matter, but of mind. The philosopher considered the sensory reality as a false illusion, a bad reproduction of the (spiritual) world of ideas. Leleisi’uao’s sketched reality as a mental imprint makes this division clear. On the one hand there are the identifiable beings that arise and disappear and therefore subject to the laws of time and space, on the other hand there is the soul, in many hidden appearances, timeless and imperishable. The majority of beings want to collectively penetrate the actual reality, the world of ideas. Here the Va, as a conceptual space in between, helps us to enter the future world.
This entry is total anarchy, figures rambling, building, going, looking and thinking and, in the criss-cross movement of subjective expressions and attitudes, the artist is relating to the actualization process, as outlined in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, that beings can experience on their way to an “ideal state”. The daring journey from the perceptible world to the reality of ideas is constantly going on. The world of beings within time and space, depicted as beings carrying out activities with identifiable objects, live “in the cave”. The echoes of the more abstract entities on the other side of the wall, the black demarcated grids, can be seen as temporary variants of the beings. About the process of liberation, escaping from the cave to ascend to the world of abstractions, some beings think long and hard. The sun, the bright red sphere present in some of the spaces in between, corresponds with our mind with which we can see the true insights. The beings’ right to exist is like an ironic game with significations, significations found in imitations of a world continuously imitating itself. Some beings are frozen in time, some explore everyday contingencies, some are deeply thinking, some are recreating knowledge lost in migration, some are looking up, some are looking into the void and others are mimicking each others movements and social patterns.
We read one another through what we believe, through the mirrors of who and what we are. Andy is alternatively expressing the spirits urge to self-understanding. These objects and beings render the freedom of this new spirit, externalized in a new world, visible to an audience. But his aim is not to imitate nature, decorate our surroundings, or prompt us to engage in moral or political action or simply shock us. By contrast, Andy allows us to contemplate and enjoy created images of our own spiritual freedom projected upon an imaginary world negotiating with its own utopian construction. In this revelation of the true spirit of humanity, one can ask whether we are so free, in individualistic terms, and whether this is ideal at all?
As a virtuoso he makes it possible to bring to mind the truth about ourselves and so to become more aware of who we truly are and why we are here (or anywhere). These paintings are cosmic templates which acknowledge with humorous subjectivity the confusion of reality, existence and love. The visual artist is sacrificing himself by subcutaneously freeing the spectator from a preconditioned mind, based on a misleading idea of reality, and to raise him/her to a transcendental realm where he/she is in a state of pure unconscious perception of the world as representation, based on mental images and ideas. Fortunately there are no practicalities, competition, money, politics and other sobering considerations getting in the way.
The multitudes of figures seem more like curious builders and investigators of a new world rather than “habitués” of the secular world. Andy goes into the places of social exchange, beyond the actions of his figures, into a shared amoral environment where every act, whether conscious or incidental, seem pointless. But that is exactly the point: beings seemingly offering themselves up for each other. And if you see clearly, really clearly, you’ve got to laugh because these beings accomplish nothing. But the seeming triviality of the survival of these subjects and their sacred objects afford precisely the supreme idea of depth. The depths and heights of the living heart as such, beings in their joy, love and sorrow, their striving, deed and fate.
In a certain sense, beings are aware of their own historicity because they notice that they take their place somewhere in the chain, and herein the objects act as temporal points of contact. Ancient mythological knowledge exists side by side with rituals that continue to be observed today. One might think that his sense of time is linear, that in other words there is a goal and result, with a starting point and an end point. Andy’s symphonic dialogue with the future can prophetically herald the culmination of our historicity. It shows to future extraterrestrial visitors the world we could have, but choose to ignore. In linear thinking, his new works are as Kubrickian monoliths shaping a Leleisi’uaon odyssey. However, the repetitive group-oriented events in the artworks, dangling between primitivism, modernism and post-apocalypticism, point more to a belief in a cyclical sense of time. His paintings form the birth of something new. His repetitions make growth, “flowering”, dying and rest possible.
The vicissitudes of life are naturally accepted by his beings. Everything is full of sense and meaning, even if it has no purpose, even if there is no visible end result. In Andy’s visual genesis there is no beginning, middle or end. Love and life simply exist in the forms that we know and do not know. Therefore in Andy’s creative process, the word art ceases to refer to specific things or human events and becomes a device for getting the attention of people, who should realize that the world is a work of art we should treasure and share amongst others.
We already know that Andy crisscrossingly paints the ultimate order of existence/ nature, all entrapped in a cave of shadows, as imprinted on his consciousness. In these paintings, he plays this processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through, which he actualizes anew or recreates the events represented. Hence maintaining a cosmic order, these beings move around, poetically fighting boredom together without hurting each other. These beings cross psychological
boundaries between the self and others and in these implicit social conflicts, value emerges. The resulting value has an apparent religious side and gives us a clairvoyant spiritual insight.
In this urge to survive in an alternative world, a lot of attention is paid to erecting memorials, leaving emblems that worship the confrontation with emptiness and celebrate the beauty of connectedness. These signs, without directly depicting holiness, acquire an almost religious meaning because they represent something larger than the beings themselves, something that immortalises their faith in alliance. The whole series reads itself as an ever-moving procession, an organised ceremony in which beings look for meaningful connections without manifestations of power, wealth or supernatural entities. In short, one long religious act: transcendent, absurd and absolute. Andy’s religion is painting. His religion unfolds as a way to control reality by inventing a perfect world. The ancient struggle between reason and madness, between heaven and hell seem irrelevant to the experience of his utopian world. On the contrary, “real” solidarity stands central.
In Andy’s painted world, you can’t achieve anything on your own. The combination of extreme collectivity and selflessness, embodied as social progress and total tolerance for all groups of beings, makes the work radiate potency and acceptance. But there is in his series, a spiritual force at work that transcends the merely religious. There is a grandeur in his vision of a new world, appropriating Darwin’s awe at nature’s creation of endless forms, most wonderfully weird.
Beings assimilate the phenomena of vegetation and animal life, then some conceive the idea of time and space (display of ancient “Polynesian” navigation techniques, world map, the dots indicating the moon or sun, spaceship, banal objects,…) and eventually some beings contemplate existence, in other words they are intellectually aware of life itself (emblems, playing chess and other “puzzled” activities)
The artist recognizes that our being human is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings. Our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it. In this sense, Andy formulates a critique; that we have largely given up on spirituality in a craving for freedom that all too often places individual desires above the common search for meaning.
In those new works Andy has not only externalized an invisible, spiritual presence but the artist has also given life to a new artistic persona, in which he merges passive contemplation with active experimentation. Andy has become the Leleisi’uao Zen Master who mistrusts dogma’s and encourages education, seeks spiritual enlightenment but avoids formalist logic, accepts the body as well as the mind and embraces self-discipline but relinquishes ego-centered self-control. His art intends our thoughts to be directed to a transcendent, superior state of being. The artist pushes for an internally consistent, self-declaring monologue, a monologue between personal ideals that constantly reach peaks and valleys, and a conviction that the universe has no design.
As critic I remain confused, as a curator I am amused and for a spectator its messages are ever diffused. The series’ allegorical storytelling, a species constantly searching, making social gestures, moving, thinking and constructing, reveals in all mysterious grotesqueness, that the final part of this jigsaw puzzle called life is self-evident: have love for oneself and show some love for the other. From scale to umbrella, from mechanical to magical powers, from the material to the spiritual, this is a visual plea to take care of (y)our existence, for everything that lives and moves.
Therefore a Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience, for me, forever immortalized as one enormous painting, answers Andy’s call to spirituality and expresses an idiosyncratic world view as complex as Dante, Bosch and Breughel. By suggestively expressing a parallel reality metaphorically, his paintings are transcending time and place. These clusters of interconnected visual diagrams are of all times and of no time at all, of all places and no place at all. His continuous artistic experimentation, culminating in his own original artistic language, reflects a belief that both art and (sur)reality cannot be summarized in a single image, place or time.
Through the prophetic undertones, the imagination seems to precede reality, so that his works always remain one step ahead of us, their completion eternally pending. In this way the paintings also provide us with an epistemological question: what can a classic medium like painting still teach us about perception, space and truth? Andy Leleisi’uao resembles in this regard a visionary poet expanding familiar symbols and creating new ones. While making us spectators think and sweat, the artist subtly delivers a mesmerizing and confronting synthesis of everyone’s self negotiated in-between position. Be optimistic, be patient and have faith because everything will eventually fall into place. Arthur Buerms.
Survey exhibition curated by Ben Bergman
May 2 – July 14
TSB | Wallace Arts Centre
Hillsborough, Auckland, New Zealand.
KAMOAN MINE by Rachel Smith.
It is impossible not to notice the contrast: corned beef cans with popular culture figures set on a marble mantelpiece, the weary and angry faces of artist Andy Leleisi’uao and his family that look out from the walls of the historic Pah Homestead, home of the TSB | Wallace Arts Centre. “There’s a lot of me,” says Leleisi’uao. “The portraits, they ground me – I’m feeding myself to make myself stronger.”
Kamoan Mine, a survey exhibition of over 20 years of Leleisi’uao’s work, has been over a year in the making. In 2017 Leleisi’uao was awarded The Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award for his paintings, Harmonic People. He had made the finals before, every year for the previous 10 years, to the point where it had become a bit of a joke between himself and his friends, including Ben Bergman, director of Bergman Gallery. When he did win, it was not any award but the top one, which included a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York City, USA.
The following year, Leleisi’uao was again a part of the Auckland Art Fair with Bergman Gallery. There was a dinner at Rannoch House, the residence and gallery of Sir James Wallace who is founder of the Wallace Arts Trust, followed by a Q&A session between Leleisi’uao and Ron Brownson, senior curator for New Zealand and Pacific Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. “Sir James made a grand announcement that he wanted a show of Andy’s works at the Pah Homestead,” says Bergman. “We all felt that after 23 years of exhibition it was time for a survey of Andy’s work, his first to date. Andy is getting a lot of what I believe is overdue credit.”
The survey show would be no small task. A full time artist since 1996, Leleisi’uao is recognised as one of New Zealand’s most significant Pacific artists. He is also a prolific artist with 80 solo shows and 148 group shows from New Zealand to Sydney, Rarotonga, Taiwan, New York, Slovakia and Hungary.
Bergman approached Wallace with a request to curate the survey show. With the intention to include over 100 works and a 100 page catalogue, it would be the first major show Bergman had curated. “If we’re going to do an Andy show then it has to be an Andy show. It was important to me to tell the full story.”
Bergman and Leleisi’uao have a long and close relationship which began back in 2003 when Bergman heard Brownson speak during the Pacific Arts Symposium in Christchurch. Brownson mentioned an artist, Andy Leleisi’uao. It was a name Bergman had heard of but didn’t know much about. At the end of the talk Bergman introduced himself to Brownson and told him he needed to meet the artist.
Based on the inflammatory nature of Leleisi’uao’s early work, Bergman says he expected some big menacing person, quite unlike the quiet, reserved individual he found in the furthest corner of the Auckland Art Gallery. “I instantly bonded with Andy’s art. His UFO paintings are an intrinsic adventure, fuelled by fantasy and joy,” says Bergman. “It’s been quite a ride ever since.”
The road to the Kamoan Mine, has not been a clear cut path – it has been built from hard work and an unwavering belief in the narratives Leleisi’uao wanted to share.
Born in Auckland in 1969, Leleisi’uao, is a first generation Kiwi Samoan. It was a challenging time for the Pacific community in New Zealand, epitomised by the dawn raids of the early 70’s. He completed secondary school to find that no tertiary art course would take him, in the same way that his early work was turned down by galleries time and again. Leleisi’uao persisted and nine years after first showing his work at the 1985 Auckland Star Secondary School Exhibition, he was awarded the Artist in Residence at Mangere Community Arts Centre.
Along the way he coined the term Kamoan, a way of making sense of the two disparate cultures he grew up with, a word which he describes as a way of being from two cultures without a blood link.“It was then I began to spread my wings,” Leleisi’uao says.
Leleisi’uao’s work was first exhibited by Bergman in 2007, in Scriptures from the West alongside Cook Islands artist Mahiriki Tangaroa, with regular shows in Rarotonga ever since. In 2010 Bergman purchased Mangere Aroha, a mural of Leleisi’uao’s which was turned down by Manukau City Council for being too expressive and powerful. It was exhibited in Rarotonga in 2018, the opening attended by Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Kamoan Mine is a collaboration between Bergman, Leleisi’uao and Nicholas Butler, curator for Pah Homestead. Works were sourced from the artists own collection and private collections, including ten from the Wallace Trust, whose first purchase of Leleisi’uao’s work was in 2003. “I bought it as soon as I saw it,” says Wallace of the painting, Chasing the Mivimivi. “Andy has a very amusing and vivid imagination.”
Important for both Bergman and Leleisi’uao was to show a range of work, from his earlier socio-political pieces to the more recent works representing his new world visions. One pivotal piece sourced from a private collection in Sydney, was Honest to God, first shown in Furious at Casula Powerhouse with Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey. It is intentionally confronting, the text ‘Samoan Born Ministers are Wankers’ scrawled across the canvas.
Leleisi’uao says works such as this, arose out of community situations at the time, situations that for him have changed as he has grown and moved both physically and spiritually. Essentially it all comes back to the values his mum instilled in him – if something is wrong you fix it. “I realised what I was doing had a responsibility,” he says. “I’m glad I’m in the position to do this visually.”
A recently discovered quote from his good friend and writer Albert Wendt sums this up for the artist: Contrary to our elite groups, our pre-papalagi cultures were not perfect or beyond reproach. No culture is perfect or sacred even today. Individual dissent is essential to the healthy survival, development and sanity of any nation – without it our cultures will drown in self-love.
“The questions of who am I and what do I do with this, Andy painted it,” says Bergman. “His political and social works are unabashed and unapologetic….they were poignant then and remain so to this day.”
“It would seem no matter the geography, we as humans struggle with the same tribulations. While Andy’s narrative initially spoke to issues of displaced Pacific diaspora within New Zealand, it now tackles a broader scope, you, me, them, us …anywhere and everywhere. As Ron Brownson succinctly surmised in an earlier writing – Andy’s prescient talent for seeing who we are, what we are like and what we do, is a signature of his art.”
For Leleisi’uao it seems as much a way of living as it is to breathe. “It’s an innate calling – this is my language on the walls.”
Bergman Gallery at the 2018 Auckland Art Fair, New Zealand with Sylvia Marsters and Andy Leleisi’uao.
New Zealand Prime Minister and Minister of Arts & Heritage, Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern introduces Andy Leleisi’uao’s large scale installation Mangere Aroha at Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga, March, 2018.
Bergman Gallery, Today, Tomorrow & Yesterday, an exhibition by Reuben Paterson & Tungane Broadbent with keynote speaker Ben Plumbly, Director – Art + Object.
Tivaivai/Paintings / July 4 – August 31, 2017
Three brief but beautiful days and one fabulous exhibition. My trip to the island of Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands, was uncomfortably sandwiched between auction commitments. I had to consider the offer to travel and speak at the opening of the exhibition closely and the haste of my visit was further compounded by crossing the International date Line. Despite this, I couldn’t have had a more enjoyable time or a better cultural experience.
We were greeted at the airport by local gallerist and personality Ben Bergman and his partner Luke. Their hospitality and enthusiasm is quite justifiably the stuff of legend and if you should ever find yourself in Rarotonga be sure to look them up. The eponymous Bergman Gallery is housed just outside of the main township of Avarua in the courtyard at the rear of the beautiful Beachcomber building. Originally built by the London Missionary Society in 1845 it was virtually destroyed by a cyclone in 1968 and then beautifully restored in the 1990s. Bergman Gallery is a classic and sophisticated white-walled contemporary dealer gallery, the likes of which you’d be just as likely to encounter in New York or London.
‘Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday – Tungane Broadbent and Reuben Paterson’ opened on the evening of July 4th. I can honestly say I’ve never attended an opening like it. Never before have I felt more comfortable completely surrounded by strangers. At a time when there seems to be an exhibition opening every night in Auckland, this was clearly a rare event to be savoured with the Cook Islands arts community coming out en masse. It opened with a traditional Cook Islands prayer, some speeches and a wonderful ‘Ute’ or traditional song called ‘Tumu Poroiti’ performed by the Pukapuka community, a local performance group. ‘Tumu Poroiti’ refers to a flower which is used to sew neck ei’s and head ei’s. An integral part of the song they performed is ‘hosanna’, which refers directly to the introduction of Christianity. The beautiful performance witnessed broad audience participation including dancing by exhibiting artist Reuben Paterson along with local Cook Islands artist Ani O’Neill.
The exhibition and the works themselves were just as special and equally as unforgettable. Tungane Broadbent can only be described as a master Tivaivai artist. Tivaivai is the art of quilt-making, Tivai meaning literally ‘to patch’ or to mend. Introduced by Christian missionaries to the Cook Islands in the early nineteenth century, within more recent times it has reached new heights of artistic and aesthetic sophistication as it has incorporated new concepts and designs reflecting the changing and increasingly globalized world. Tivaivai is a social, community-centred activity valued, outside of the current gallery context in which it is presently being discussed at least, for the manner in which it reflects aspects of the community and existence itself – plants, life, relationships and, as the title of the exhibition explicitly references, links between the past and the future. As Tungane mentioned in her speech on the opening night, like everywhere else the Cook Islands is changing and its traditions and essence are under threat from environmental change and modernity. Less and less young women are today practicing the traditional art form.
Reuben Paterson’s works in the exhibition were a direct response to the art of Tivaivai and more especially to the work of Tungane Broadbent herself. Ostensibly the contrast between media, culture and aesthetics was pronounced yet it didn’t feel this way in the exhibition where the works of the two artists jostled, colluded and challenged each other to present a generative contemporary take on art and life in the Pacific in the 21st Century. Like Tungane, Paterson appeared at the top of his game. Two master crafts-people both having refined their craft over the years and demonstrating ample mastery of their respective media. Paterson’s works have often found their genesis and inspiration in the textiles and dresses of his whanau and this, perhaps, was always going to make the pairing of the two artists an obvious success and fertile grounds for cultural conversation.
Reuben Paterson’s work has always been remarkably successful visually and in the manner in which it subverts distinctions of high and low art or kitsch and the avant-garde. Here though, something in his work has changed. Works such as the cheekily-titled Every Time a Coconut (2017) exhibited a newfound virtuosity resultant not just from the context and concept of the exhibition, both of which were undeniably intoxicating, but rather from the incorporation of different grades of glitter. This created a depth and strength to his work beyond the usual ‘shimmer’, made even more effective by the relatively large scale of the work. I Want to Thank You (2017) was similarly stunning, evoking a more literal nod to his engagement with Tungane’s works as well as to the costumes of local Cook Island women and especially the wonderfully vibrant ‘Muumuu’ worn by Tungane herself. Paterson has long been interested in the art of Tivaivai and worked at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in the 1990s when a large exhibition of Tivaivai was held in the New gallery.
Tungane’s works, unsurprisingly, appeared far more restrained. Hung like paintings on the wall in European gallery fashion, the presentation was more unusual to locals than to myself where such a presentation seems naturally aligned with their aesthetic, if not their cultural or ceremonial value. The large ‘Tivaivai Manu’ work Fan made from just two solid-coloured fabrics was a revelation for me. In its simple symmetrical pattern based on the motif of the fan there was a formal eloquence and restraint undermining the strong pink and green contrast as well as a gentle figure ground ambiguity which seemed to recall so much western abstraction and particularly that of the esteemed New Zealand painter Gordon Walters. Tungane’s other large scale work for the show was entitled Roses and it was a wondrous example of ‘Tivaivai Tataura’, a more lavishly embellished style typically featuring stylized floral motifs.
‘Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday’ provided a timely reminder for me of the importance of art in the community and that art making is fundamentally a communal or social activity. It also explicitly and quite successfully delivered on its curatorial premise and imperative, that in order to chart the murky, rising waters of the future we would do well to acknowledge our collective past. The problems facing the Cook Islands are not endemic to them. Like Tivaivai, Reuben Paterson’s glitter paintings can also be seen as social biographies, rich in genealogy, community and history. Together Tungane and Paterson’s works demonstrated that despite boundaries of distance, time, culture and craft, art is a fundamentally social discourse. Like the Cook’s, it can also be a lot of fun.
Ben Plumbly, Director, Art + Object, Auckland, New Zealand.
For New Zealand Art News, Spring 2017.
There are definite challenges to working with glitter. Artist Reuben Paterson has long since accepted that the minute shiny particles will be found everywhere in his New Zealand studio. Like the product he works with, Paterson’s career is a glittering one. From his first solo exhibition in 2001, his work has made its way from galleries and collections in New Zealand and Australia, to Rarotonga, where it has found an unlikely home beside Tivaivai, the exquisitely stitched quilting that is uniquely Cook Islands.
The connection between thousands of pieces of glitter and thousands of delicate stitches is not an obvious one – a truly traditional art form and one that is blatantly contemporary. It is there though, like the close relationship between the two countries themselves, recognised by Ben Bergman, owner of Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
“They are radically different mediums,” says Bergman. “It’s the conceptual elements that bind them – the themes they articulate are similar.” The idea of a pairing of Pacific artists, a pairing of culture and forms, had been discussed by Bergman many times with colleague, John McCormack, Director of STARKWHITE Gallery in Auckland. It was a given that Tivaivai would be one of these forms.
Bergman has a long relationship with Broadbent, as comes with living in a small Pacific nation. Born in Australia in 1970, Bergman moved to Rarotonga in 1976, where Broadbent was one of his primary school teachers. Her stunning Tivaivai has featured in his gallery many times, as well as in exhibitions across the globe. As a young girl on her home island of Mangaia, Broadbent always saw women making Tivaivai. It was what they did – stitching tivaivai for special occasions and for the Tutaka, home and property inspections. “I just knew how to make Tivaivai from watching,” says Broadbent, who at the age of 77 years has been cutting and stitching Tivaivai, and exhibiting her work, for close to 50 years.
Bergman had been convinced by the vitality of Paterson’s work when he first saw it in Auckland in 2003, and during Paterson’s time as Artist in Residence at his gallery in 2010. And both Broadbent and Paterson are well established artists in their own right, each included as part of the 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane in 2009/10. Skype brought the two artists together. Paterson was immediately taken by the colours in the purple and green dress Broadbent was wearing. He asked her to make a Tivaivai in these same colours, and it became one of four that she included in their shared exhibition ‘Today, Tomorrow & Yesterday’ held at Bergman Gallery in 2017.
Paterson’s extravagant glittering botanical works were a response to Broadbent’s use of colour and the botanics of the islands, taking him back to when he painted kowhaiwhai in non-traditional colours in 2010 after his father’s death, and his descent lines to Ngati Rangitihi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Tūhourangi. “Those same descent lines will always make me think of The Garden of Seven Stones in Ngatangiia Harbour (Rarotonga) – those descent lines and connections can all be traced back to here because it’s all a part of the whakapapa,” says Paterson.
For Bergman, the ultimate aim has always been to place Pacific art in an international context – to be recognised as contemporary art form in its own right. The pairing of Paterson and Broadbent is the first of many, followed closely by an exhibition of Benjamin Work and Andy Leleisi’uao and a return to the Auckland Art Fair in 2018 to showcase Andy Leleisi’uao alongside Sylvia Marsters.
“As a region the South Pacific has so much in common – and so much to offer.”
Tongan / New Zealand artist Benjamin Works presents his epic narrative For King & Country, Bergman Gallery, June 2016.
Bergman Gallery was launched in 2016 with the Mahiriki Tangaroa exhibition ‘Blessed Again by the Gods.’ Surrounded by local flora, dimensional Cook Islands deities populate the vivid Island landscapes, connecting past and present. Four large canvases, represent the four seasons, Summer, Winter, Autumn & Spring. The smaller scale 5th canvas encompasses the thematic premise, providing a renewal point for all things. Video by Turama Photography.