Tau Tupua: The Spirits. Rob George, Toa Taiha, Vela Manusuate.
25th July – 30th August. Fresh Gallery Otara.
The exhibition Tau Tupua: The Spirits featured the work of Robert George, Toa Taiha and Vela Manusuate. When I first heard about this exhibition from a colleague I decided instantly that it was one I had to see. Unlike many contemporary exhibitions where the conceptual framing of the show can be read in a very broad way, this show had a specific focus.In 1915 during the first world war 150 Niuean men joined the New Zealand’s Maori contingent to serve in Egypt and France.”Tau Tupua: The Spirits honors war sacrifice of Niuean leaders, growers and fisherman”.
The first work you see when entering the gallery is Spades (2014) By Toa Taihia. Shovels sit stoically on plinths at different heights and have been sanded down to create traditional Polynesian patterns along the plane of the objects. The transformation of the shovel is both striking in its beauty and symbolic of the Niuean soldiers role in Egypt which was to dig trenches for the NZ battalion. I see the work not only acting as a memorial for the fallen soldiers but also a commentary on pacific men who continue to work in labour industry today. “The shovel heads highlight how Niuean soldiers did not fight or kill, but were uses as a labour force to dig trenches. The series celebrates the tool’s utility and tells stories about how it was used. But it also questions those who regard manual work as unskilled and low of value.” (Taihia, 2014).
On the left hand side of the gallery on a black wall sits three monitors displaying interviews with elders from the Niuean community, each sharing his or her story about what they remember from the war. Although the interviews are simple the sharing of stories is important as it would be a first for many who enter the gallery to have heard any thing about the Niuean contribution to the war. Black curtains are the entry point to the moving image work of Robert George Tonight I am the Winter Winds (2014). The room is dark instantly creating a sense of quite and stillness in ones self while watching the moving image that is projected onto three screens all at different intervals of the film. An abstract narrative filmed underwater that I concluded to be a love story plays out as we witness young soldier, slowly falling his arm reaching for the surface. The image changes to a young woman in a white dress and then to two hands reaching for each other. The imagery is beautiful in its sadness as the artist talks about not only the fallen soldiers but the loved ones they left behind and the sorrow it creates.
Although not obviously visible in the gallery Vela Manusaute’s contribution to the show is significant, his chosen medium words. Enclosed in a little book which guests can take away are poems, essay and an excerpt of Vela’s new play (which is a work in progress) Savage Warriors. Like the other works in the show the book is dedicated to acknowledging the Niuean soldiers as heroes that should not be forgotten. There is also a strong search for answers in the texts, an attempt to understand why the young men would want volunteer to fight in someone else’s war and for a country that was not their own which is very clear in the poem Calling Home “A war they never understood, a war no one understood. Today were still trying to find out why they went.” Tau Tupua: The Spirits is an exhibition that has a lot of essence. The work of Toa Taihia, Robert George and Vela Manusaute create a space to discover and reflect lost stories and is an example of the ways in which we can use the arts to let a voice be heard.
Photo credit: Fresh Gallery Otara