Continuing to expand its geographical coverage, Contemporary HUM is pleased to bring you the second essay covering New Zealand's art activity in Asia. Working with local sub-editors in the region, we have commissioned a first series of new publications about projects in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangladesh. This one is an essay by Hong Kong-based writer Ysabelle Cheung reviewing the most recent exhibition at Para Site, Hong Kong, and is produced in collaboration with HUM's Associate Editor Amy Weng.

Throughout history, the Kingdom of Tonga has adapted to unpredictable societal, economic, political and environmental changes. Then and now, the work of women has been instrumental in the persistence of Tongan cultural narratives, in particular the practice of koloa, an umbrella term denoting tangible and intangible wealth and encompassing various forms of cultural exchange, such as textile-making. As testament to the significance of koloa, the latest show at Para Site art space in Hong Kong showcases the work of the Tongan women, from the historical to the contemporary. “Koloa: Women, Art, and Technology” showcases artworks mostly drawn from the collection of Tongan cultural ambassador Dowager Lady Fielakepa Tunakaimanu Fielakepa, who curated the show alongside Cosmin Costinas and Vivian Zherl, and also includes artworks by three female artists from New Zealand, each tackling in subtle or explicit ways their own relationship to indigeneity. 

Para Site’s space is separated into two levels. At ground level, there is a specific focus on depictions of industrial and technological progress in the form of modernised hardware (such as the water tank, which when introduced to Tonga in the 1940s, allowed for more convenient accessibility to clean water). Further along, synthesised modes of artistic production are evident in the works of contemporary artists Tanya Edwards, Nikau Hindin, and Vaimaila Urale. These are contextualised against newly created Tongan kupesi—pictorial stencils made from pandanus or coconut leaves, and stitched with coconut frond midribs—and ngatu, the painted tapa cloth that bears these patterns.

At the entrance of the space is Tongan Māori artist Edwards’ digital-print portrait of Her Majesty the late Queen Sālote Tupou III, the beloved first female ruler of Tonga between 1918 and 1965. Although other names appear in the exhibition, through wall texts and the accompanying catalogue, it is interesting to note that there are no other portraits or faces throughout, perhaps a deliberate curatorial move to avoid the problematic aspects of photojournalism around indigenous communities. Rendered as an artwork with overlapping layers of colour, this image of Queen Sālote might be seen not just as a portrait of a woman, but also symbolic of the history of matriarchy in Tonga and society’s connection to koloa. Edwards has also included a clue to her own bi-cultural heritage, seen through the patterns of traditional Māori weaving in the background, and perhaps hinting at her own matriarchal lineage—her grandmother, Puti Hineaupounamu Rare, is an expert weaver. 

In addition to illustrating Tonga’s matriarchal society, the portrait also references the increased interactions with British monarchy and industrial growth under Queen Sālote’s reign. Through the wall text, we learn that Edwards has in fact created a copy of a photograph of the monarch when she visited England to witness the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Here, Queen Sālote’s expression and outfit that day is captured: she wears a European-style silk mantle with a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire badge while simultaneously proudly bearing her Tongan heritage with a feather hairpiece, communicating through her dress, as many global political figures have done before and after, Tonga’s gradual adoption of European practices while maintaining overall power or governance. (Although the Kingdom of Tonga was under British protectorate rule from 1900 to 1970, it retained its monarchical government structure). Around this room we see other examples of this marriage of local and foreign influence, such as kupesi depictions of spitfire planes that were purchased by Tonga and donated to Britain during the Pacific War, and the water tank, whose motif is seen in a ngatu created by Women’s Group Kautaha Painitu‘ua and painted by Tongan artists Matei and Mona Taʻufo‘ou. In these works, meetings of industry and tradition, manmade and natural, and foreign and local, are presented in a neutral context, with little or no background information. For visitors with no prior knowledge of the region’s history, it might be easy to conclude that Tonga has adapted to modernisation and globalisation with relatively little negative social or political repercussions.

However, Samoan-born, Auckland-based artist Vaimaila Urale aims to deconstruct and subvert stereotypes of modernity and colonisation in her practice, examining the relationship between indigenous communities in the Pacific and the enlightenment ideals of Euro-American arrivals. For Aniva II, she applied sand and glue to paper to write in an invented vocabulary that references both markings in traditional Samoan bark cloth, a practice on the brink of disappearance, and computer script in the American Standard Code for Information Exchange, which was developed in the 1960s to popularise global digital communications. Urale’s merging of cultures at once equalises the two systems of language—one suppressed and the other aggressively promoted by the Global North—and proposes an alternative narrative that recognises similarities between the languages, such as the delicate wedge-shape of bird’s feet in Samoan bark cloth and the greater than or less than symbol in mathematics.

This radical repositioning of history seems to begin and end with Urale’s work. That specific aspects of Tongan culture were lost or suppressed in pursuit of colonisation and progression isn’t otherwise immediately clear in the show. Ngatu and kupesi appear to be crafted using the same labor-intensive methods that depend on skilled artisans, despite the availability of machinery and mass-produced objects popular in other areas in the Pacific. However, in the accompanying printed material, it is pointed out that the materials used in ngatu production have become commercialised, and there is a concerted effort by organisations such as The National Woman’s Council to preserve tradition through training women, with some producing crafts specifically for tourists, in order to maintain economic growth. While acknowledging that such changes are inevitable, the curatorial text suggests that the Tongan community is committed to adaptation over erasure of culture.   

As the show moves up into the upper-level space, its focus shifts to the inheritance and interpretation of Tongan cultural artefacts through the context of global contemporary art. Various historically-significant ngatu, kupesi, ceremonial mats, ta‘ovala (a dress mat, worn around the waist) and kafa (a woven rope made of fibres or hair) are displayed, not under glass and in low light, as in typical institutional—and Euro-American ethnographic—presentations, but draped across the expanse of the space, resting on tables under bright lights and against fuchsia walls, seemingly to prioritise the living, breathing, and modern aspects of these practices. In the context of a contemporary space, the work rejects the stuffy label of relic and asks to be identified as an artwork. A ngatu tā’uli (blackened tapa cloth), a re-creation of one in the collection of Her Royal Highness the Princess Sālote  Mafileʻo Pilolevu Tuita, is a scroll of red clay and black candlenut pigment—rich, uncontaminated hues that in their oneness with the earth might remind viewers of the introspective landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe or Etel Adnan. (One also recalls the work of Gutai or Color Field, but these examples seem too hyper-masculine, aggressive.) Pulled in a simple but dramatic diagonal line from ceiling to floor, the 32-metre textile also finds a likeness in Eva Hesse’s experiments with material, space and gravity. Additionally, this presentation allows for microscopic access into the work’s texture, scent and story. We almost hear the pounding and drying of mulberry tree bark into fine strips (feta’aki); we smell the perfume of the candlenut kernel being burned into dark soot; and we almost see girls and women lined up along a semi-circle wooden table upon which the feta‘aki is stretched, shaped, and painted.

Like artworks exchanged through networks of artists, curators, collectors and institutions, these objects are similarly shared and gifted from one owner to another. Ngatu and kafa draw out not just economic and social provenances but also narratives of womanhood and intergenerational knowledge-sharing. The hair of daughters and mothers are braided together with cowrie shells to form kafa belts, and kupesi reveal pictorial references to significant periods of Tongan history, such as the war efforts of Queen Sālote. Juxtaposed with these stories is Urale’s Mea Ila Ila II (2019), whose title translates roughly to “the shiny things.” These shiny things refer to an admixture of sand and biodegradable glitter, which Urale used to write from her vocabulary on a metal square, and which hint at activities of play and leisure with her daughters. The artist’s intent is to code the routines of motherhood—play, sleep, eat—into these glyphs, at once recording the mundanity of quotidian life, in contrast to the ngatu, which are typically created for special occasions, and revealing the tensions, in the usage of sand and glitter, around raising her daughters in a rapidly modernising world and between the natural islands of Savai‘i and urban Wellington. “I feed them words to counter certain Western ideals around concepts of individuality, ownership, superheroes, gender roles, commercialism and the need to have things,” she writes in her description of the work.

This effort of subversion and of continual resistance to overwhelming external influence is felt at every level within the show, from the granular to the macroscopic. It seems more than coincidental that the exhibition opened in a year marked by political action in Hong Kong and rife with debate around the erosion of sovereignty and identity. In a city whose people feel at times groundless, one can find hope in the works of Nikau Hindin, an artist from Te Rarawa who maps her own oceanic and celestial navigations onto newly-created Māori bark cloth, known as aute, a practice lost in the mid-19th century that she is dedicated to reviving. In Hindin’s works there is a subtle push to connect the skies, sea and stars and reclaim them from colonising history, and from the Western modernisation-centric way of looking at the world. There is yet another clue in the exhibition’s title that argues for this reclamation. Technology can entail computers, artificial intelligence, GPS systems, and other cutting-edge machinery, but at its core it is a philosophy, describing the ways in which knowledge is collected and applied for practical uses. Should we not then see these celestial navigations, the passing down of information through koloa, and the communion with earth’s pigments, as the most vital form of technology?