The Immortal Tango of Love & War, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse & Diaspora's Children: Telly Tuita

8 February - 2 March 2024 Bergman Gallery, Auckland
'They are big, bright attention-grabbing images, camp vivant, but with a dark undertone, a bit like Mardi Gras, but with a sledgehammer.'

Opening 5pm, Thursday 8 February, all welcome.


For the Auckland Pride Festival (Feb 1-29, 2024 ) Bergman Gallery returns 3 suites of Telly Tuita's epic photographs in a single presentation, marking the first time these images have been seen together as a collective body of work.

Love and war are two extremes of the human experience where the ends are sometimes thought to justify the means. As the saying goes, all’s fair in love and war.  And that conflict can take many forms whether it be a trojan horse at the gates or waging war with your reflection in the mirror. For artist Telly Tuita, it is a maelstrom of life lived between two realities. 


Born in Tonga in 1980, he was raised in several different villages until aged 9, when it was decided that the boy who spoke no English would be better off with his father and European, religiously inclined wife, in Sydney.  The cultural adaptation to life in Sydney was astonishing - from island village to urban metropolis. It was a different planet, new language, new family, new culture, new village. 


Surrounded by the general materialistic nature of western consumerism, he was fascinated by its bright and shiny disposability and infinite re-invention. Music, movies, department store windows, chic product packing, glossy magazines, fast food and fast pace of life the antithesis of his former existence. 


Tuita’s metropolitan family dynamic was not without tribulation and lasted until he was aged 14.  As a teenager, Tuita re-experienced his childhood circumstance, living between spaces, first with his father and then Aunty and Uncle who ultimately guided him to University. It proved a fateful turn of events, as it laid the foundation for what was to ultimately manifest itself as the artists principal concept, the self-coined, Tongpop.


With a Bachelor’s in Fine Art and Art Education and a Master’s Degree in Special Education, a career as an artist was not immediately forthcoming. Tuita started out as a teacher, then  deputy principal before fate stepped in, meeting his future New Zealand husband in a chance encounter, Telly returning from a party and Hoani out for an early morning run. Moving to Wellington in 2017, Tuita adopted his chance to be a full-time artist, selling his work through the concept retail store Precinct 35 and participating in a series of exhibitions within regional public institutions and private galleries. 


Meeting Telly in 2022, it was immediately clear he is not a personality that takes a back seat, and his art reflects that.  As curator Robert Leonard noted, ‘The tableaux vivant he stages in his back yard with photographer Nick Shackelton allow him to embody and act out his conflicts, making himself their vanishing point, with everything converging on his body. In the Four Horsemen photos, he matches the dark riders (Famine, Conquest, War, and Death) with the seasons (Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer). Tuita’s avatars wear elaborate headdresses and superhero capes. One wears a blue skull mask, another wears footy shorts and is draped in diaphanous pink tulle, queering the iconic look of Aussie yobs draped in Australian flags.’


I felt elated standing in front of the works. Here in front of me was a deeply unapologetic explosion of contemporaneous identity, a personal statement of a new diasporic Pacific character rising within the populous of New Zealand and Australia. 


Spring boarding into his photographic compositions, the whirlwind of Tongpop rises to meet you like a tsunami. Here, Tuita thrives, repackaging traditional Tongan motif and icons, world art and cultural anthropology within a glitzy window setting befitting of a David Jones department store.  They are big, bright attention-grabbing images, camp vivant, but with a dark undertone, a bit like Mardi Gras, but with a sledgehammer. 


Of his recent works, The Immortal Tango of Love & War, Tuita writes ‘Manifestations of love and war; in classical art, religion, human behaviour, politics, and popular culture are intrinsic to the existence of Tongpop. After all, I was the result of loves fiery but fleeting passions. Equally the world I was born into was the result of two world war’s dual function of savage conflict for the hope of eventual peace. Oceania today holds many stories and events that would rival the divine. The Pacific is as much associated with Venus now as it is with its Roman and Greek origins.’


This analogy stirs up the now controversial Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook. Cook, documenting the transit of Venus, helped fuel the European obsession with the untouched Islands of the Pacific, fetishizing populations of bare breasted women and warrior savages handily ripe for colonization.  This erotic projection of Pacific people didn’t allow much room for the world to see their attributes – as engineers, navigators, craftsmen, linguists, astronomers, and politicians.


In Tongpop fashion, Tuita rips that narrative out of the history books, for a divine enactment and re-examination. In a twin series of photographic tetraptych’s Tuita’s characters ‘Ofa and Taú (Love & War), are treated to the grand manner style of his performative self-portraiture, the artist embodying both guises through movement, self-made costumes, props & recycled accessories. Gathering further stimulus from the frescoes of Pompeii, Roman and Greek sculptures, the Pacific pantheon of Atua, the Tāhine muses of Gauguin, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and European drawings and prints of Oceania ancestors, Tuita’s ‘Ofa and Taú beguilingly pose in shiny metallic pink and blue body suits, surrounded by Tongpop flotsam. 


Are they friend or foe, lovers, warmongers, or peace makers? Or all of the above? There is an undeniable, sexualized fury at the heart of these compositions, love is indeed a battlefield. ‘Venus is just as likely to shank you as fuck you’ the artist states. 


 Tuita’s chronicle mash up of historical and contemporary art, music, movies and literature with his own cultural origins defines the artists genre of Tongpop and epitomizes the outsized influence of the western ethos across the Pacific expanse, be it Islands in the sun or Islanders in the city. It touches all aspects of life and has given rise to a new diasporic Pacific persona for which Tuita speaks. It’s a fine balancing act of cultural nostalgia, self and belonging and the prospects of bright lights/big city.  Ben Bergman.