Andy Leleisi’uao
A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience (edit)
Tokyo International Art Fair / Virtual
October 8-9, 2021.

Bergman Gallery is please to make its virtual debut with the Tokyo International Art Fair. 

Andy Leleisiuao’s detailed paintings display a profound and manifold wonder. Such wonder is characteristic of Andy’s art. It possesses great beauty and wit but is never about superficial prettiness or one-liners. His paintings are dense with memorable detail. Spend even a short time looking at the works in this show, and the figures, objects, and scenes Andy has made will lodge themselves in your mind’s eye.  Even after many views, new details will emerge, sneak up on you. As such, repeated views are recommended. 

The works you see here are travellers, and not only from Aotearoa. The largest were made in New York City in 2018, during a five-month residency Andy received when he won the prestigious Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award in 2017. The visit to New York was not Andy’s first. He had already shown there several times, and so was returning to a place to some extent familiar. Traces of that bustling, migrant city, and the experience of being there, may be found in these paintings. But the most important impact was no doubt the time and space to think and make, pushing his Diaspora works in new directions.

The series is immediately recognisable for its forms in silhouette, created by brush and hand (Andy likes to speak of his fingerprints being all over his works). The majority are in black and bordered by a misty halo reminiscent of charcoal smudges, a feature that lends the works a certain ethereality or other-worldliness, even before their specific content is considered. The images are made up of compartments mostly populated by human (or human-like) figures. This pictorial system relates to a host of image-making traditions from round the world. Comic books, which Andy has enjoyed since his youth, are one reference point. I think, too, of friezes on Greek temples, tomb paintings from Egypt, sculptures on South-East Asian buildings, and carvings on elephant tusks from West Africa.

The use of silhouettes and compartments points to two key and related concepts underpinning Andy’s work: the fundamental unity of human experience, and the importance of acceptance. The identities of the figures he paints are not clear. They might be of any colour, creed, or sexual orientation. They not only occupy the same spaces but do so in relative peace. These are not conflict-ridden pictures. That is not to say that the figures, which the artist terms ‘imaginary friends’, are free of trials. Certainly, there are moments of pathos, even melancholy. A passage that consistently attracts my attention shows an ominous horned creature placing or removing an orb from one bowl of a set of scales. Slung in the other bowl is a small figure. The scene recalls Christian depictions of Saint Michael weighing souls—perhaps questioning the judgmental aspect of organised religion, perhaps suggesting that morality remains independent of the same.

I’m wary of making grand statements about precisely how real-world entities and environments relate to Andy’s invented situations. But perhaps it will suffice to observe that while these paintings are filled with specific references to the artist’s personal life and cultural background, they appeal to visitor-viewers from everywhere, inviting all of us to project ourselves on to them, as Andy projected on to Atticus Finch. As you roam round the artist’s worlds (there’s no itinerary; all pathways are equally valid), you will find that they include beings of all kinds, regardless of the number, placement, and shape of their body parts, and whether they travel by vaka or flying saucer.

‘Diaspora’ as a term is often tinged with pain, evoking the leaving of a homeland under pressure, rather than by pure choice, and consequent feelings of disconnection, unmooring. The works in this show do not necessarily negate these connotations. As I mentioned before, aspects of pathos can be detected. I for one cannot look at a painted panda without recalling the fragility of the natural world and the threat we humans pose. But there is also great optimism at play. Gazing at forms that dance between jellyfish and vaporous heads, I think of how much we still do not know about ourselves, our planet, and the immense cosmos to which we are all connected. Finding our place is a very great puzzle. So many pieces to try to fit together. So many tricky questions to answer. But there’s no need to wallow in a sense of futility, provided we are tolerant, operate in good faith, and have patience. Francis McWhannell.