Survey exhibition curated by Ben Bergman
May 2 – July 14
TSB | Wallace Arts Centre
Hillsborough, Auckland, New Zealand.
KAMOAN MINE by Rachel Smith.
It is impossible not to notice the contrast: corned beef cans with popular culture figures set on a marble mantelpiece, the weary and angry faces of artist Andy Leleisi’uao and his family that look out from the walls of the historic Pah Homestead, home of the TSB | Wallace Arts Centre. “There’s a lot of me,” says Leleisi’uao. “The portraits, they ground me – I’m feeding myself to make myself stronger.”
Kamoan Mine, a survey exhibition of over 20 years of Leleisi’uao’s work, has been over a year in the making. In 2017 Leleisi’uao was awarded The Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award for his paintings, Harmonic People. He had made the finals before, every year for the previous 10 years, to the point where it had become a bit of a joke between himself and his friends, including Ben Bergman, director of Bergman Gallery. When he did win, it was not any award but the top one, which included a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York City, USA.
The following year, Leleisi’uao was again a part of the Auckland Art Fair with Bergman Gallery. There was a dinner at Rannoch House, the residence and gallery of Sir James Wallace who is founder of the Wallace Arts Trust, followed by a Q&A session between Leleisi’uao and Ron Brownson, senior curator for New Zealand and Pacific Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. “Sir James made a grand announcement that he wanted a show of Andy’s works at the Pah Homestead,” says Bergman. “We all felt that after 23 years of exhibition it was time for a survey of Andy’s work, his first to date. Andy is getting a lot of what I believe is overdue credit.”
The survey show would be no small task. A full time artist since 1996, Leleisi’uao is recognised as one of New Zealand’s most significant Pacific artists. He is also a prolific artist with 80 solo shows and 148 group shows from New Zealand to Sydney, Rarotonga, Taiwan, New York, Slovakia and Hungary.
Bergman approached Wallace with a request to curate the survey show. With the intention to include over 100 works and a 100 page catalogue, it would be the first major show Bergman had curated. “If we’re going to do an Andy show then it has to be an Andy show. It was important to me to tell the full story.”
Bergman and Leleisi’uao have a long and close relationship which began back in 2003 when Bergman heard Brownson speak during the Pacific Arts Symposium in Christchurch. Brownson mentioned an artist, Andy Leleisi’uao. It was a name Bergman had heard of but didn’t know much about. At the end of the talk Bergman introduced himself to Brownson and told him he needed to meet the artist.
Based on the inflammatory nature of Leleisi’uao’s early work, Bergman says he expected some big menacing person, quite unlike the quiet, reserved individual he found in the furthest corner of the Auckland Art Gallery. “I instantly bonded with Andy’s art. His UFO paintings are an intrinsic adventure, fuelled by fantasy and joy,” says Bergman. “It’s been quite a ride ever since.”
The road to the Kamoan Mine, has not been a clear cut path – it has been built from hard work and an unwavering belief in the narratives Leleisi’uao wanted to share.
Born in Auckland in 1969, Leleisi’uao, is a first generation Kiwi Samoan. It was a challenging time for the Pacific community in New Zealand, epitomised by the dawn raids of the early 70’s. He completed secondary school to find that no tertiary art course would take him, in the same way that his early work was turned down by galleries time and again. Leleisi’uao persisted and nine years after first showing his work at the 1985 Auckland Star Secondary School Exhibition, he was awarded the Artist in Residence at Mangere Community Arts Centre.
Along the way he coined the term Kamoan, a way of making sense of the two disparate cultures he grew up with, a word which he describes as a way of being from two cultures without a blood link.“It was then I began to spread my wings,” Leleisi’uao says.
Leleisi’uao’s work was first exhibited by Bergman in 2007, in Scriptures from the West alongside Cook Islands artist Mahiriki Tangaroa, with regular shows in Rarotonga ever since. In 2010 Bergman purchased Mangere Aroha, a mural of Leleisi’uao’s which was turned down by Manukau City Council for being too expressive and powerful. It was exhibited in Rarotonga in 2018, the opening attended by Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Kamoan Mine is a collaboration between Bergman, Leleisi’uao and Nicholas Butler, curator for Pah Homestead. Works were sourced from the artists own collection and private collections, including ten from the Wallace Trust, whose first purchase of Leleisi’uao’s work was in 2003. “I bought it as soon as I saw it,” says Wallace of the painting, Chasing the Mivimivi. “Andy has a very amusing and vivid imagination.”
Important for both Bergman and Leleisi’uao was to show a range of work, from his earlier socio-political pieces to the more recent works representing his new world visions. One pivotal piece sourced from a private collection in Sydney, was Honest to God, first shown in Furious at Casula Powerhouse with Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey. It is intentionally confronting, the text ‘Samoan Born Ministers are Wankers’ scrawled across the canvas.
Leleisi’uao says works such as this, arose out of community situations at the time, situations that for him have changed as he has grown and moved both physically and spiritually. Essentially it all comes back to the values his mum instilled in him – if something is wrong you fix it. “I realised what I was doing had a responsibility,” he says. “I’m glad I’m in the position to do this visually.”
A recently discovered quote from his good friend and writer Albert Wendt sums this up for the artist: Contrary to our elite groups, our pre-papalagi cultures were not perfect or beyond reproach. No culture is perfect or sacred even today. Individual dissent is essential to the healthy survival, development and sanity of any nation – without it our cultures will drown in self-love.
“The questions of who am I and what do I do with this, Andy painted it,” says Bergman. “His political and social works are unabashed and unapologetic….they were poignant then and remain so to this day.”
“It would seem no matter the geography, we as humans struggle with the same tribulations. While Andy’s narrative initially spoke to issues of displaced Pacific diaspora within New Zealand, it now tackles a broader scope, you, me, them, us …anywhere and everywhere. As Ron Brownson succinctly surmised in an earlier writing – Andy’s prescient talent for seeing who we are, what we are like and what we do, is a signature of his art.”
For Leleisi’uao it seems as much a way of living as it is to breathe. “It’s an innate calling – this is my language on the walls.”