Tongan Artist’s Christian themed tapa wins top award

A  tapa cloth depicting traditional Tongan figures of divinity within a contemporary Christian context has won this year’s Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award.

The New Zealand Herald desceribes Visesio Poasi Siasau’s  work as tapa cloth measures 4.4m by 18m.

“But these words hardly capture the ambition and strangeness of the artist’s work,” says Scott Hamilton.

“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.”

Visesio, known as Sio, has received a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York, plus a stipend and a trophy created by sculptor Terry Stringer.

Sio was born in Tonga and grew up in Haveluloto, a poor suburb on the edge of Nuku’alofa.

He comes from a hereditary guild of Tongan tufunga or tohunga.

He worked as an electrician in the Tongan Navy.

He moved to New Zealand 20 years ago and became inspired to take up art as a career while living with his uncle, a carver, in Otara.

Last year Sio graduated with the first master’s degree in the applied indigenous knowledge programme in the Pacific, after studying at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in New Zealand.

He sees himself as a tufunga‘i, practitioner, and draws on Tongan understanding of things to interpret what traditional knowledge keepers have passed down.

Scott Hamilton says Sio’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.

He delves into the context of divinity figures in order to explore their making, meaning, and function in Tongan society and the intersection between this type of deity and Christianity.


News category: Asia Pacific.

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