My friend Visesio Siasau has steered his vaka from Tonga to New York City, where he has begun a six month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme. The residency comes with the Wallace Award that Visesio won last year in Auckland.
At a ceremony held at Pah Homestead to celebrate Visesio's win, an art lover asked him how he felt he would cope with life in New York. With crazed traffic and pharaonic architecture, the city must surely seem very distant from Visesio's hometown of Nuku'alofa, where pigs and dogs share the road with farting secondhand cars, and coconut trees grow higher than most buildings. Visesio explained, though, that he wasn't fazed by the prospect of spending half a year in the Big Apple. 'My people are great navigators' he said.
Only a few days after arriving in New York Visesio has navigated his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two of the very few ancient Tongan sculptures to survive the clubs and fires of Christianity are housed. Roger Neich tracked down these sculptures, and others like them, in a meticulous and tender 2007 essay with the sad and defiant title 'Tongan Goddesses: from Goddesses to Missionary Trophies to Masterpieces'. For a decade Visesio Siasau has been studying Neich's essay, and every other study of ancient Tongan sculpture he can find; now, thousands of miles from his homeland, he has been able to encounter the sacred art of his ancestors. Maia Nuku, a curator of the collection of 'Oceanic art' at the museum, helped Visesio find the objects.
After visiting the goddesses at the Metropolitan Museum Siasau posted this statement on facebook:
Alas our 'OTUA TONGA-GOD you are confine and put away. You have been denied and removed from the space of humanity but not from our heart, blood and DNA, that simultaneously enhancing, to an object of fantasies. You play a major role as who we are as Tongan, and how we define our relateness to the world with our Tonganess you encoded and imbued.. Thank you Maia Nuku for this morning for enabling time for me to engage with our ancestor and allow me to dialogue with them, and about them.
Visesio's partner Serene Tay, who is an artist and a curator in her own right, added this comment:
We've spent atleast a decade reading, referring to and loving these two Taonga -Tongan Goddesses, its like being hapu for 10 years and then the presence of the creation is revealed. #firstencounter x
Since they were imported to the northern hemisphere, the sculpted gods of Polynesia have inspired Picasso and Henry Moore and Brancusi. It is right that a Tongan artist should now have an audience with these extraordinary objects.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]