In July, Tauranga Art Gallery was installing its show Mānawatia Takatāpui/Defending Plurality. It was only half up, but Stephen Cleland, the gallery’s new director, walked me through. I found myself transfixed by four large photos by an artist I didn’t know. Telly Tuita posed in studio-style sets with colourful faux-tapa backdrops, wearing crazy, improvised costumes, surrounded by suggestive props. Based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, his images were part regal, part op shop; a bit kids’ play, a bit mardi gras; with a dash of disco and a pinch of something sinister. I was surprised to learn he was from Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, my town. After lockdown, I tracked him down and we met in the Lyall Bay bungalow he shares with his husband and their chow chow.
Tuita was born in Tonga in 1980. He’s never met his mum, who deserted him at birth. As a child, he was whāngai-ed around, between family members. When he was nine, his grandfather thought he’d be better off with his dad, by then living in Australia with his Pālangi wife. So, the little boy – who didn’t speak English and hadn’t been off the island – was put on a plane and plunged into another world. “I was told I was being sent to a better life, but I had no concept of what that would be,” he says.
He had difficulty relating to his new environment, especially his religious stepmum. “She thought it’d be great to bring over a little jungle boy from Tonga to civilise him, but, by then, I’d already lived a thousand lives,” he says. They fought. “She used to threaten me for misbehaving, saying, ‘I’ll send you back to Tonga!’ And I’d say, ‘Send me back! Send me back!’ She kicked me out when I was 14. Maybe, by then, she had a feeling that I was gay.”
Despite such early bumps, Tuita did well. Being a party boy, Sydney was a pleasure for him. He went to university and was the first in his family to graduate. He did a teaching degree, then a master’s in special education, becoming a deputy headmaster. All the while, he made art, riffing on memories of his Tongan past. In 2017, he met his husband-to-be, a boy from Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington visiting for the weekend. They crossed paths one morning: Tuita heading home from a party, Hoani heading out for a jog. Tuita relocated to Aotearoa in 2017 and they married in 2020. His plan was to teach, but Hoani suggested he make art full-time. “It was like a child being told he could go into a massive lolly shop and eat whatever he wants.”
When I ask what life in Tonga had been like, Tuita alludes to family complications, but also offers a more idyllic account. “It was exactly what an islander life should be,” he says. “Like most village kids, I did chores, I spent time in nature. I didn’t have any notion of the west.” Tuita’s Tonga is a child’s memory. There are no photographs. “The first time I had my photo taken was for my passport to go to Australia,” he says.
Curator Leafa Wilson coined the term “cold islanders” to describe Pasifika artists based in Aotearoa. As Polynesians, she says, they relate to Māori, yet they have tauiwi status. They are “cold”, she says: away from the warmth of the islands literally and left out in the cold metaphorically. Cold islanders often idealise their homeland. Tuita titled a 2020 solo show TongPop Nostalgia. Nostalgia is a malaise. This yearning to reconnect with a perfect, fantasy past generates a proliferation of signifiers of Tonganness in his work.
Tuita’s TongPop is part of a globally prevalent art idiom defined by the collision of indigenous and pop sensibilities, where colonised and colonising rub together, where traditional, grounded, oral cultures dance with global mass media. The spectre of a secure identity and the allure of shiny new things compete for attention.
Tuita’s gay sensibility offers another turn of the screw. His 2020 painting The Captain is perverse. “It’s Captain Cook as a young man, based on a marble sculpture by a French artist,” he explains. “I like it because he looks like a sexy twink. It’s so un-Captain Cook.” In The Captain, the stylised carved-wooden features of the Tongan goddess Hikule‘o are superimposed over Cook’s cold marble ones – two totemic figures going head to head. After the introduction of Christianity in Tonga, worship of Hikule‘o was outlawed, yet she persists as a ubiquitous image of the nation. She crops up throughout Tuita’s work, sometimes as a mask he wears. In The Captain, it’s like we are caught in the middle of a filmic dissolve between Cook and Hikule‘o, but we don’t know which way it’s going. Has he usurped her or is she overwriting him?
Like many artists from colonised cultures, Tuita has a love-hate relationship with the early colonial images he references. They exemplify an idealising, exoticising gaze, but also provide a real bridge with the past. “It’s like drugs. I had my first hit with John Webber prints,” he says, referring to the artist who accompanied Cook on his third Pacific voyage. “I always laugh that some of the most sexy photographs of islanders were made by missionaries.”The tableaux vivant Tuita stages in his back yard with photographer Nick Shackelton allow him to embody and act out his conflicts, making himself their vanishing point, with everything converging on his body. In the Four Horsemen photos, he matches the dark riders (Famine, Conquest, War, and Death) with the seasons (autumn, winter, spring, summer). Tuita’s avatars wear elaborate headdresses and superhero capes. One wears a blue skull mask, another wears footy shorts and is draped in diaphanous pink tulle, queering the iconic look of Aussie yobs draped in Australian flags.
Archetypes pervade Tuita’s work. Right now, he’s planning a new cycle of seven self-portraits. He outlines the plan, reading from his workbook: “The Terrorist is immortalised as the Hero. The Celebrity is always the Lover. The Mogul overpowers the King. Warriors of the Right and Left! The Jester is a mask for Queers. The Bloke a Hero. The Immigrant is a forced Warrior.” It’s like he’s creating a TongPop tarot.
Tuita has shown with Precinct 35 in Wellington and Weasel in Hamilton, but he doesn’t have a dealer – not yet. His work has been more visible in public spaces, including Objectspace and Tautai in Auckland, and CoCA in Christchurch. A recent commission for Wellington City Council will see his imagery enlarged and wrapped around buildings, impossible to ignore. His next show is a pop-up organised by the concept store Kaukau, with artists Sione Monu and Pusi Urale. And he has his first residency coming up, with Artspace Aotearoa in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.
“Someone called my work window dressing,” Tuita says. “It was the best compliment. Going past David Jones when I was young, I thought, ‘That’s art.’”