If you missed the latest exhibition and my artist talk do not despair!
‘Inheritance’ - a group exhibition curated by AO Curatorial (Ashlyn-Jade Schwenke and Olivia Spiers) opened on 16 May at Nexus Art Space in the Adelaide CBD. It featured work from a multicultural group of South Australian artists including Anna Dowling, Amanda Ng, Janaki Lele and myself.
In the words of the curators, the exhibition is about 'Navigating journeys of self-discovery, artists traverse the space created by time and distance, uniting diverse aspects of their identities. In a world where multiculturalism is often treated as a state of being that is negotiated, four artists share familiar stories of inheritance where multiculturalism is not a construct but an inherent aspect of self.'
As one of the featured artists, I was asked to give a talk on the opening night of the exhibition.
Of course I said yes!
My burgeoning art career has led me to try all kinds of things I never thought I would do. I try to say YES to every opportunity even if it scares me.
As my first proper artist talk I was nervous, but also excited to share more information about the cultural inspiration that really informs my work. The feedback I had on the night was fantastic and so many people were interested to learn more about what I do. Afterwards, attendee's viewed my work with more intention and a new perspective.
With this in mind I have included the transcript of my artist talk so that you don’t miss out either. I have added in a few extra pictures
So get comfy and read on...
I’m going to take this opportunity tonight to talk to you about my practice, how I started and what led me to create the four pieces I have in this exhibition.
So to start with, a little about me.
I was born and raised in Adelaide to an English Mother and a Kiwi Father.
Dad’s mother was Scottish and his father was Tongan.
I think most of you can tell by looking at me I wasn’t exactly born with a typically British complexion.
Growing up I didn’t realise this olive skin colour mattered much, until I would see the surprise on people’s faces when they heard my blue-eyed, blonde haired mum introduce me as her daughter.
‘Oh!’ They would exclaim,
‘Dad must be dark then!?’
I wouldn’t describe dad as ‘dark’, but he does have a pretty good tan!
Now, the little twist in this story is that Dad didn’t actually meet his biological father until he was in his 40’s. Suffice to say, there were no pacific islander influences growing up for either of us.
Tonga is not a place I knew much about during my childhood. But once I finished school I decided I wanted to know about this islander heritage I supposedly had. I didn’t look like any of my fair-skinned, English cousins, so I did some travelling. I went to America and met my Tongan grandpa and then I finally went to Tonga. It was a life-changing experience and gave new meaning to my understanding of family.
So, if you haven’t heard of Tonga before, it is a kingdom made up of 170 islands in the South Pacific. If you zoom in far enough on Google Maps you might just be able to see it below Samoa and Fiji.
I should mention here, that throughout this journey of discovery I was living with depression.
It affected work, study and relationships.
I would sleep most of the day and when I wasn’t sleeping I would draw black and white patterns, that were bold, contrasting and repetitive. Anyone who has experienced depression knows that diet, sleep and exercise don’t exist. So it was good to have this thing, my art, to hold on to.
During my recovery, I developed my own style of abstract expressionist painting. I started to use acrylic paint to express myself and I found a kind of escape in this. The large marbling colours created unpredictable shapes, to me they represented the unpredictable symptoms of anxiety and depression. These seemingly strange forms began to appear as islands, and I found this as an important connection to my cultural roots. These painted islands are made up of irregular and sometimes unfamiliar shapes, because I still feel like a stranger to them.
After the expressive painting I begin the fine line work with acrylic paint. The repeated outlines of the island shapes represent contour lines on a map, and this is a particularly therapeutic process for me. Repetition and mindfulness have aided my recovery greatly.
These first collection of works I refer to as ‘Mind Maps.’
After the development of the initial Mind Map collection, I decided to do some more research about my heritage. I read about Tongan ceremonies and learnt about the significance of the Tapa cloth. These are big woven mats and can measure up to 100 metres long!
Once the cloth is made, it is then decorated in black and white geometric patterns.
When I first saw photos of the Tapa cloths, I instantly recognised the patterns in some of the black and white drawings I had done in the past.
Seeing this link was a big turning point in my practice, because in a way it confirmed that I had Tongan culture in me. I realised I had inherited something that I had never been taught. I knew in this moment that this was an important path I had to follow. You can call it spiritual or a ‘gut feeling’, but I just knew with absolute certainty that there was something about these patterns that I needed to explore.
The patterns found in Tongan Tapa cloth are quite symbolic, and these large mats are used to mark significant occasions. The giving and receiving of Tapa binds Tongans together and helps to retain cultural values of honor, obligation and respect.
This leads me to tonight and the creation of my Pasifika collection.
Pasifika is a term used to refer to people from the islands of the South Pacific, their descendants and is also used to relate to their culture. The patterns I have chosen to use in my work are a sample from a small Tapa cloth gifted to my family. I have also appropriated exisiting motifs and developed my own patterns.
I have four works from that collection are here tonight, so I will briefly talk about each one.
This piece symbolises the connection between land and sea.
I have chosen to use colours commonly seen below the waves, as a reminder of the life that thrives in amongst the coral. A life that people often forget about because it’s not right in front of them. To create this pattern I have reinterpreted the traditional Kupesi motif known as ‘Amoamokofe'.
The geometric motif used in this piece is known as the ‘Manulua’, translated directly, it refers to two birds or two pairs of wings. The deeper meaning of this pattern is to bring two groups or families together to form a new union. The use of negative space reflects the freedom of flight and provides and escape from the stresses of our modern lifestyle.
The Manulua pattern is one of the oldest and most well known designs in Polynesia
Pasifika 'The Palms'
The colour scheme here is inspired by the iconic coconut palm prolific throughout Polynesia. The pattern I have chosen to use here is an adaption of the ‘Longolongo' motif.
The Longlongo is an ornamental tree fern, used to decorate homes in Tonga. The traditional motif is used to illustrate the different stages of the plants growth.
This Painting is inspired by the ebb and flow of the tides, as they are pushed and pulled by the gravitational force of the moon.
The colours evoke memories of childhoods spent at the beach, and the colour of the ocean changing from day to night.
Our ocean, which covers 70% of the earth's surface, constantly fascinates me.
While this great body of water divides us geographically, it is also the one thing that connects us all.
As you can see this Pasifika collection is still growing and expanding as I learn more. I have found researching Kupesi motifs and their meanings particularly difficult. Most stories are passed down verbally and there are very limited written resources available. To complicate this, different island groups in Tonga and the greater Pacific have different interpretations of each pattern.
Next month I am going to Tonga, to learn more about my heritage, meet family and visit the remote islands where my ancestors were born.
So stayed tuned for the next instalment!
Thank you all once again for coming out and supporting this exhibition, it really means so much.
There are some exceptional pieces of writing by the curatorial team which go into more depth about their rationale. I highly recommend you read them if you have time!
Exhibition essay, artist statements and curators statements are all available on the curators Medium site.