Taniela Petelo's toilet humour
In my piece for EyeContact, I linked Edwards with Visesio Siasau, who won a Wallace Award after putting a picture of Jesus disfigured by dollar bills on barkcloth, and with Tui Emma Gillies, who has put skulls and snakes and other images from her subconscious into her ngatu paintings. I also wanted to mention, an outrageous painting by Taniela Petelo, a long-time member of Nuku'alofa's avant-garde Seleka Kava Club, but I couldn't track down a photograph of the work until last night, when I found one on the hard drive of my mother's computer.
When Seleka provoked conservative Tongans by staging an exhibition at Nuku'alofa's Langafonua gallery in 2013, Petelo showed off the painting he called New Age Kupesi. It was made with clay and ink on barkcloth, and it uses a series of toilet bowls and lids to make a kupesi, or pattern, associated with the blossoms of some of Tonga's kakala, or fragrant flowers. Kakala played an important part in traditional Tongan culture: poets celebrated them, dancers wore them, and ngatu painters stylised them.
By associating kakala with toilets, Taniela Petelo juxtaposes the fragrant with the excremental, and mocks the distinctions that Tongan culture has traditionally made between beautiful and ugly, clean and unclean objects. The fact that the flush toilet is a muli, or alien, object, which has only become common in Tonga in the last couple of decades, only makes Petelo's painting more provocative.
When she saw New Age Kupesi in 2013 my wife laughed, and linked the painting to the scatological imagery that the Seleka Club has always deployed. Seleka is a neologism designed to echo kasele, the Tongan word for excrete. The club's members drink their kava from a toilet bowl, and refer to the drink as ta'e, or shit.
Some observers have damned the Selekarians as immature and disgusting, but club members insist that they are only responding to taunts that conservative Tongans have aimed at them. When Tevita Latu announced his intention of building a kava house where he and his friends would drink and make experimental art, elders in his village of Havelu warned him that they would refer to the house as a faleta'e, or toilet, and thereby humiliate anyone who dared to step inside. Latu and his comrades have chosen to satirise and defuse such insults by making them the basis of club imagery and ritual.
Petelo exhibited New Age Kupesi alongside a note explaining that the work was not for sale. Did the work have a special value for him, or was he perhaps concerned that a visitor to Langafonua gallery might buy and burn the barkcloth, as some conservative Tongans have reportedly bought and burnt paintings by Tevita Latu?
Footnote: the Seleka Club has just held a major group exhibition at its lagoonside headquarters. Here are a couple of photographs from the opening party. You can follow Seleka on facebook.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]