Curated by Ben Bergman
02 May – 14 July
Evening opening 6pm, 2 May
Ground floor galleries
TSB | Wallace Arts Centre, Hillsborough Rd, Auckland.
“World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbour – it requires only that they live together with mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.”
Brave words from a dynamic young American President in 1963 as he attempted to avoid a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.
In the context of a global society still coming to terms with the monstrous fallout of WW2, the insanity of the Korean War and staring down the barrel of yet another Asian conflict, Kennedy’s views seemed somewhat optimistic. And they were, echoed in a society repulsed by mass, senseless violence. The sixties, despite the advent of the Vietnam War, were all about peace, love and re-population.
Born in Mangere, Auckland in 1969, Andy Leleisi’uao is the son of the first wave of Samoan immigrants attracted to post world war New Zealand to fulfill drastic labour shortages in factories and freezing works. New Zealand was promoted as the land of milk and honey, a land of opportunity, and by 1971, 45,000 Pacific Islanders called New Zealand home. But, in 1974, under the pressure of an economic downturn, political sentiment toward Pacific immigration waned, and in a racist backlash against Pacific Island over stayers, the infamous dawn raids occurred. Police with dogs burst into homes in the early hours, Pacific people were randomly stopped in the street, Police showed up at places of work. In an all too familiar narrative, the economic woes of the time were blamed on immigrants. Although the raids ended in the late 1970’s, the relationship between Pacific Islanders and New Zealand was severely impacted.
The eighties were a fabulous decade for world contemporary culture. Today’s tech giants Apple and Microsoft were emergent. Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher were political rock stars, the Cold War was ending, CNN & MTV were born, popular music was reinvented and Hollywood generated blockbusters that redefined and influenced world popular culture for decades to come. It was a period that birthed an entire way of western life that this generation now fully takes for granted.
At school in South Auckland, Andy struggled with a mundane art curriculum. What was expected, what was taught, he just didn’t relate too. Pacific art had no place; young Pacific Islanders aspiring to be artists had no terms of Pacific art reference. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the McMillan Brown Centre For Pacific Studies at Canterbury University was established by Professor Ron Crocombe to provide professional development for New Zealand/ Pacific Island artists.
Growing up in Mangere, as a first generation, Kiwi Samoan, had its own unique tribulations. For context socially, there were only three places for Pacific Islanders during 1980’s New Zealand, in a factory, on the dole, or in prison. At home, traditional Samoan cultural expectations were imposed on Andy, a contrast to the contemporary European values of the country to which he was born. But he wasn’t seen as a New Zealander by society at large. Nor did he consider himself a full Samoan, not in the traditional sense.
So, as best he could, he merged both identities, he became what he describes as Kamoan, and he was free to do with it as he liked – and he had something to say.
First there was the rebellion. Explosive, emotive, eruptive canvases emerged in his Auckland shows Waking up to my Polynesian Spine (1997), The Brownest Dawn (1998) and in Sydney, the exhibition Furious, at Casula Powehouse with Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey. Furious was notable for Leleisi’uao’s less than subtle canvas Honest to God. Scrawled across the large red canvas are the words ‘Samoan Born Minsters are Wankers’. Depicted in the painting is a hostile church scene, with brown ministers in black clothing mercilessly exploiting their gullible, culturally displaced flock.
Over the next ten years, Andy delivered 20 new exhibitions notable amongst them Patterns of My Lavalava (1999), Crashed Presbyterian (2000), Tired of Silence (2001), My Samoan Accent (2001), The Ballad of Tinou’amea and Pepe (2004), Cheeky Darkie (2005), We’re Not Black (2005) and Lost Kamoans of the Godly and Godless (2006). In these exhibitions his themes and intentions are obvious, he shouts them from the canvas, confronting domestic violence, poverty, racism, unemployment and youth suicide, agonizing concerns faced by blue-collar Pacific Island, particularly Samoan, immigrants to New Zealand.
In 2003, the unmistakable influence of the 1980’s, his own cultural heritage and a keen intellect began to manifest itself in the exhibition The Umu Collection of Titles and a new body of work, the UFOlogical. The premise is escapism in its purist form. Blown off course in a massive storm, seven canoes discover an island where the remains of an alien civilization remain. Using the discovered alien technology, a new society of peaceful co-existence is created. Bright colours, and Island utopian societies evolved. Birds spelt out the word Peace in the sky.
Peace, such an alien concept in a volatile world that repeatedly tries to destroy itself by any means necessary.
Within his UFOlogical paintings, new adventures emerged, set against a rocking soundtrack of contemporary pop culture references, new societies were created, new languages were spoken and an entire new set of values was born, all the while omnipresent UFO’s watched from the horizon.
In 2008, Andy delivered the exhibition, Angipanis of the Abanimal People, Andy stated “The Angipanis of the Abanimal People reflect an inner reality that, I believe, is part of a continuous evolution which has always existed, it’s simply been waiting for me to notice it. Using a combination of past and recent symbols that have appeared throughout my works, what has emerged is a surreal world of good and evil. This pictorial vocabulary demonstrates a spiritual confrontation, an inner world of constant instability and mystery, a world that merges and lingers in an ambivalence, reflecting my own angels and demons.”
And that world has rapidly expanded. Andy’s art had changed; the rebellion has evolved into a universal narrative of black and white, of reconciling the irreconcilable no matter where or what it is. He tells the story of what we can be as a species, regardless of our cultural stature, religious convictions, skin colour or sexual orientation.
The Angipani premise grew over the next ten years through the exhibitions Areatures of the Arctaur People (2009), Wandering Through Pandemonium Quiet (2010), Waking up to the Obscurity People (2014), Quaint People of Nuanua (2015), Ubiquitous People of Erodipolis (2016) and his most recent series A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience (2018) painted in NYC as part of his Wallace Arts Trust paramount residency award.
But, along the way, the artist has returned to his more confrontational style, in the exhibitions Dandelion People (2012), Ghosts of a Second Samoan (2015) and An Unlovely Sorry (2017). He doesn’t do so to score points or demand retribution. ‘Lest we forget’ is perhaps a better way to understand what the artist wants us to understand. That the past can be acknowledged and learned from to create a better way of life, to do so, start with the man in the mirror.
In 2008, Andy was asked ‘Who is included in your definition of Kamoan?’ He replied, ‘Anyone. For me it’s the naked bridge, a truce between space and cultures. Originally, it encompassed New Zealand–born Samoans and those born in Samoa but raised in New Zealand, and now it also transcends mindsets, religion, spirituality, sexuality, ignorance, etc, and it will continue to evolve.’
To be truely Kamoan, is one value system recognizing another, learning to live with each other as Kennedy, and many like him have articulated.
Over two decades, Andy’s CV has grown to now total 80 solo presentations and 147 group projects. During this time he has exhibited in Taipei, Rarotonga, Slovakia, Hungary, Australia, New York and throughout New Zealand. He has won awards and undertaken residencies. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Pataka Art + Museum; Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa; Auckland Art Gallery – Toi O Tāmaki; Chartwell Collection; New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Wallace Arts Trust; Auckland University; Canterbury University; Otago University; Manukau City; Pacific Business Trust; Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, and the Museum of Ethnography, Frankfurt.
Installations, Sculpture, Drawings and Paintings define his oeuvre, the best of which we have been able to locate, we present here to you now.
I hope you enjoy the experience.
KAMOAN MINE is proudly supported by TSB | Wallace Arts Centre, Sir James Wallace, Ron Brownson, Creative New Zealand, Ultimo Group | The Print Cave, Bergman Gallery, John Leech Framing Workshop & Max White.
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 asix-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.
Bergman first exhibited Leleisi’uao’s work 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.”
Photos: Max White & Turama Photography.