Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Taniela Petelo's toilet humour

Recently I published an essay at EyeContact about the dramatic night when Tanya Edwards opened a show of her ngatu paintings at the On the Spot gallery in downtown Nuku'alofa. Edwards' new paintings have caused some controversy, because instead of displaying the religious and nationalistic symbols usually found on Tongan barkcloth they feature advertising-style portraits of unhealthy Western foods and beverages like corned beef and coca-cola. Some Tongans consider that such quotidian and undistinguished objects do not belong on barkcloth, a material historically associated with Tonga's monarchy and with Tongan identity.

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]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Taniela Petelo commented on facebook:

'The work was commissioned by an Australian volunteer, it was all her idea, everything in there. I did not do it to provoke anyone, or any other reason about my culture. The reason why it wasn't for sale because the owner wanted to exhibit it before she took it.'

10:26 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. The Seleka Club members may not only be "subversive" but trying to show maybe a Duchampian aspect. Although, it is clearly, de facto, regardless of intentions, provocative or even humoresque. Drinking from what look like toilet bowls has a Pynchonesque (a la 'V') aspect.

If in some way a work is not provocative and or critical of the 'tradition' it is not going to be of much real (intrinsic value).

But even the most 'revolutionary' or outre art works within and or against the tradition.

Once art sells in a big way artists of whatever ethnic or ilk become part of the "official culture" which the 'outside galleries' fellow critiqued with some good points. Another, although already almost ancient, way, is graffiti which in its raw illegal anonymous form approaches the highest art. So that and the associated street art using paste ups or stencils etc is some of the most interesting art.

Or, in another sense, "the artist has to live like everybody else" where Billy Apple both critiques and paradoxically joins the Art Club. Big money is made, but the truth of the 'need to live' remains. So Apple etc are both "provocative" and part of the system. Alan Loney (a greatly talented and innovative poet and important force in NZ poetry and printing and art etc as well as one of the most interesting printer publishers) was so desperate to be on the "outside" he a) made enemies of all kinds of people he considered to be against post modernism etc or didn't agree with him b) refused to sign books at one book launch (despite allowing that practice at a previous one) c) moved to Australia perhaps to refuse to be a New Zealander or because the liked snakes and spiders. He is a poet but he always wanted to be on the outside. But if everyone agreed with him, everyone would be on the outside and the only provocative ones would be traditionalists or say social realists of something. So it is a kind of catch-22.

But it is all good stuff going down over there in little old Tonga.

12:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duchamp has a lot to answer for.

2:50 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Malo for your input in the debate on historical materialism, Richard. I agree it was a good discussion, and I think a few people were watching it beyond the Pacific.

Roger Horrocks did one of the Write Night talks at Te Uru last night but I couldn't make it: Tongan lesson!

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