9 AUG – 25 AUG.2018


A solo exhibition by Telly Tuita

TongPopUa is a solo exhibition by Tongan artist, Telly Tuita. Born in Tonga, raised in Sydney, and now residing in Wellington, Telly Tuita’s a solo exhibition navigates location, connection and cultural identity. Tuita explains the concept of TongPopUa as “… a place, a myth, a fact, a person, a god, an environment, a desire and a conflict. It’s the past in the present.”

Ua (meaning two in Tongan), has been added to the end of the previously used exhibition title TongPop (a solo show at Wellington’s Precint35 earlier this year) to express Tuita’s continued exploration of central themes within his practice. Tong (an abbreviation of Tonga), Pop (referring to both popular culture and palette) and Ua, cleverly communicate a central theme of the exhibition, tapu, through the capitalisation of the letters; T, P, U. The concept of tapu crops up in a multitude of ways throughout this body of work as well as numerous other icons and symbols.

A simple place to begin regarding Tuita’s use of symbols is the Tongan coat of arms. As Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, the crown sits in the upper right-hand corner of the coat of arms and can be found amongst Tuita’s work in a variety of orientations. Tuita also employs circular shapes throughout his works which on the coat of arms are signified by three stars. These circles have several meanings; to mimic the three holes which can be found on the top of a coconut, to symbolise the three main island groups of Tonga and, when grouped together, to signify that the work is complete – a full stop.

Colonisation, (mis)interpretation and representation are central themes within Tuita’s practice. The series ‘Stolen Traded things’ is an intriguing component of TongPopUa, not only due to its visual dissimilarity to the whole body of work, but due to the insight it provides around Tuita’s position on the history of Tonga. Tuita bears a silver candlestick holder, containing a lit candle which illuminates the scene. Surrounded by Tongan fabrics, the figure of Hikule’o, one of the earliest Tongan deities, sits on the floor, an object without utility.

Several known figurines of Hikule’o were taken from Tonga during its colonisation. One, which most closely resembles Tuita’s depiction of Hikule’o (now held in the collection of the Auckland Museum) was archived by its previous owner as the Goddess Lefuga. Despite this, when shown back to the Tongan people the figure was identified as Hikule’o. Hikule’o embodies the concept of TongPopUa, employed by Tuita to express lost information, eroded by time, “…the past in the present”. Tuita questions the value of the exchange; by striking through the title he highlights the complicit nature of the Tongan royalty but also their naivety.

In another series, Talking with ghosts, Tuita explores this idea of stolen property further, using a scanned photograph of himself within his work, in place of the original copy which was never returned to him after an exhibition. Tuita does not position himself as victim, rather he demonstrates an awareness and a sense of intrigue around how things change over time, and how we can maintain a strong sense of identity despite loss.

Visually, TongPopUa is a striking exhibition. With a proficiency in collage, Tuita employs a multitude of materials including acrylic paint, felt tip pen, oil pastel, chalk, and pencil, whilst working on cotton paper, brown paper bags and atop digital prints. Using a vivid palette applied in layers with varying degrees of opacity, Tuita builds complex works comprised of shapes, patterns and printed images. Selected forms are then manipulated to give a sense of depth and movement within the work, creating a bold and engaging exhibition. These works span a significant size range, from A4 through to 2.5m2, illustrating Tuita’s playful and highly involved process.

TongPopUa is an exploratory exhibition which touches on numerous themes and concepts, relevant to Tuita personally but also to a much wider context. Tuita invites you to explore his world with him, as he brings the past into the present.

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