At a gym on the edge of Hamilton artists from across the Pacific have been drawing and painting and sculpting for a fortnight. They have been guests at an art hui organised by Don Ratana, a lecturer in education at the University of Waikato. I visited the hui on Sunday to see Tevita Latu
and Taniela Potelo, members of Tonga's avant-garde Seleka art club
When Taniela approached me, stepping carefully around the paintings that his peers had left to dry on the floor of the gym, I noticed that he was wearing what looked like a large shell or a small patu around his neck. He came closer, and I saw that the object was a computer mouse. In their hometown of Nuku'alofa the Selekarians, as they call themselves, are known for their ingenious and sometimes irreverent reinventions of Polynesian tradition. Members drink kava from a toilet bowl
in their lagoonside clubhouse, and listen to dub and techno while they paint and draw
Don Ratana encountered Latu and Potelo last year, when he attended a conference of the Pacific Arts Association in Tonga, and invited them to the Waikato, where they have been mingling with Tahitian, Marquesan, Kanak, Hawai'ian and Maori artists. On a couple of signs beside the entrance to the university gym a series of phrases - 'Wanna go for a cigarette again?'; 'You're working hard mate'; 'Do you like sculpture?' - had been translated into Tongan and French.
In between working, the guests of the hui have been swimming in the two pools - one of them long and dark blue, the other small, with the pale blue colouring of a tropical lagoon - that sit beside the gym. When I jumped in one of the pools with Tevita Latu he explained that his stay in the Waikato was changing his art. In Tonga, where art materials are formidably expensive, he had to paint on cardboard or ngatu cloth with a few colours. At Waikato he could have as much canvas and as many colours as he liked.
The Selekarians have always been ferociously eclectic, so it was no surprise to find them ingurgitating the styles and imagery of other artists at the hui. One of the canvases that Latu had leaned against the wall of the gym showed a figure that resembled like a hei tiki stirring a bowl of kava. He'd made the image, he explained, with the help of a Maori artist. Another work featured what looked like a tuatara with a crucifix for a tail and the pendulous breasts typical of traditional depictions of the Tongan goddess Hikule'o.
If you're quick, then you can see some of these extraordinary paintings, along with work by other guests of the art hui, at the Creative Waikato gallery in central Hamilton