The gods are smiling: Visesio Siasau wins the Wallace
an image of Visesio Siasau standing staunchly in front of some of the painted ngatu panels that have won him the big prize at this year's Wallace Art Awards. Siasau's win gives him a trophy, six months in New York City, and name recognition across the New Zealand art world.
The Herald describes Siasau's entry for the Wallace awards as a 'huge tapa bark cloth depicting traditional figures of divinity within a Christian context', but these words hardly capture the ambition and strangeness of the artist's work. Any reader of the Herald who examines the photograph of Siasau's ngatu carefully will notice that the image of Christ on one of his panels is decorated, or defaced, by a dollar sign. In previous works, including a series of sculptures made from glass and a type of plastic, Siasau has crucified the Tongan god Tangaloa and placed Catholic icons like Mary and Joseph on a sort of chessboard where members of the pantheon of old Polynesian gods lurk.
For all their originality, the images that Visesio Siasau makes today can be understood in relation to his Tongan childhood. Siasau grew up in Haveluloto, a poor suburb on the edge of Nuku'alofa where roads of dusty coral run down to a polluted lagoon. He is a cousin of Tevita Latu, the dissident and painter who has created an avant-garde movement called the Seleka Club in a lagoonside shack.
Like most of the citizens of Haveluloto, Siasau could track his ancestry to Ha'apai, the now-remote archipelago that was once, for a century or so, the political and cultural capital of Tonga. The islands of Ha'apai are small and low, and their people have always been known as boatbuilders and woodworkers and navigators. Many of Siasau's older male relations built and carved.
To grow up in Haveluloto in the 1980 and '90s was to inhabit two worlds. Around the kava bowl young men like Visesio heard stories about epic sea journeys and ancient battles. On the streets of Nuku'alofa, though, they encountered convenience stores with barred windows, gangs filled with high school dropouts and deportees, and homeless beggars slumped outside salubrious churches. The riot which destroyed much of downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006 only dramatised a crisis that Siasau had observed many years earlier.
Siasau's art can be seen as an attempt to reconnect the streets of Nuku'alofa with the Tonga of his ancestors. Using not only oral tradition but the work of palangi scholars like the late great Roger Neich, he has tried to recover and redeploy the culture of pre-Christian, pre-capitalist Tonga.
In 2013, when I lived in the Friendly Islands, I drove with Siasau out of Nuku'alofa and into the Tongan countryside, as he searched for the locations of the godhouses where shaman-priests of the old religion would down bowls of green kava, quiver with piety, and channel the voices of gods like Tangaloa and Hikule'o. When Christianity came to Tonga at the point of a gun, the godhouses were burned and their carvings were either smashed or handed to missionaries as captives. Pigs were run through the sacred grounds around the razed houses.
Using local rumours, old kava bowl stories, and the details that scholars like Neich had prised from missionary letters and diaries, Siasau was trying to map the sacred landscape of old Tonga. As our car wallowed in the potholes of roads built over ancient walking tracks, he gestured at the locations of the vanished godhouses, and pointed out traces of the past that had survived the depredations of Christian fundamentalism and commercial agriculture: burial mounds, sacred boulders, and a deep, thistle-filled gully that once been a saltwater canal where ships from 'Uvea and Fiji waited to be emptied of their koloa.
The series of ngatu paintings that have won Visesio Siasau the Wallace Award were created in Havleluloto last year, after the artist had conducted a succession of interviews with the inhabitants of the suburb. He listened to his relatives and neighbours talk about their beliefs, preoccupations, and problems, then searched for images capable of conveying what he had heard. The painting that adorns Christ with a dollar sign is Siasau's sardonic but not unsympathetic response to stories about the excesses of some Tongan churches.
The sources of Visesio Siasau's images might seem exotic, and even esoteric, to many New Zealanders, but I would argue that his art has parallels with the work of some of our greatest twentieth century painters. Siasau's mixture of dissatisfaction with twenty-first century capitalist civilisation and fascination with ancient Polynesian religion might remind us of Tony Fomison and Emily Karaka, those great and greatly disturbing rebels against both the commercialism and the secularism of late twentieth century New Zealand. Siasau's urgent and unashamed asking of religious questions reminds me of the stark graffiti Colin McCahon left on his last canvases. And the syncretic deities that Siasau exhibits surely recall the intricate and enchanted goddess paintings of Rita Angus.
Footnote: this is only a quick and off the cuff response to Sio's victory, and I apologise in advance for its inevitable oversights and simplifications. I wrote in more detail about the artist's god-hunting back at the beginning of last year.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]