A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience
November 4 – Feb 15 2020
Opening Monday 4 November @6pm with CITC Liquor & Rapaura Springs Winery.
Francis McWhannell, Curator – Fletcher Trust Collection.
Andy Leleisi’uao, Artist.
Ben Bergman, Gallery Director.
Kia Orana. Welcome everyone to Andy Leleisiʻuao’s A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience, his twentieth show with Ben Bergman. I would like to begin by extending warm congratulations and thanks to Andy and the team at Bergman Gallery. I feel honoured to speak here, both because Andy is one of the most highly respected painters practising in Aotearoa New Zealand, and because I have personally admired his work for some time. Until last year, I was responsible for looking after an art collection that included two earlier paintings from the same Diaspora series to which the works in this show belong, and they held a profound and manifold wonder.
Such wonder is characteristic of Andy’s art. It possesses great beauty and wit but is never about superficial prettiness or one-liners. His paintings are dense with memorable detail. Spend even a short time looking at the works in this show, and the figures, objects, and scenes Andy has made will lodge themselves in your mind’s eye. They will travel with you as you leave the gallery later tonight and move about the everyday world. Even after many views, new details will emerge, sneak up on you. As such, repeated visits are recommended. I suspect this is a reason that the present show runs for several months. The gallery knows, from experience, that one look will not be enough.
The works you see here are travellers, and not only from Aotearoa. The twelve largest were made last year in New York City, during a five-month residency Andy received when he won the prestigious Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award in 2017. The visit to New York was not Andy’s first. He had already shown there several times, and so was returning to a place to some extent familiar. Traces of that bustling, migrant city, and the experience of being there, may be found in these paintings (some of you might like to try tracking down the key to his residency studio or his lunchtime banana). But the most important impact was no doubt the time and space to think and make, pushing his Diaspora works in new directions.
The series is immediately recognisable for its forms in silhouette, created by brush and hand (Andy likes to speak of his fingerprints being all over his works). The majority are in black and bordered by a misty halo reminiscent of charcoal smudges, a feature that lends the works a certain ethereality or other-worldliness, even before their specific content is considered. The images are made up of compartments mostly populated by human (or human-like) figures. This pictorial system relates to a host of image-making traditions from round the world. Comic books, which Andy has enjoyed since his youth, are one reference point. I think, too, of friezes on Greek temples, tomb paintings from Egypt, sculptures on South-East Asian buildings, and carvings on elephant tusks from West Africa.
The use of silhouettes and compartments points to two key and related concepts underpinning Andy’s work: the fundamental unity of human experience, and the importance of acceptance. The identities of the figures he paints are not clear. They might be of any colour, creed, or sexual orientation. They not only occupy the same spaces but do so in relative peace. These are not conflict-ridden pictures. That is not to say that the figures, which the artist terms ‘imaginary friends’, are free of trials. Certainly, there are moments of pathos, even melancholy. A passage that consistently attracts my attention shows an ominous horned creature placing or removing an orb from one bowl of a set of scales. Slung in the other bowl is a small figure. The scene recalls Christian depictions of Saint Michael weighing souls—perhaps questioning the judgmental aspect of organised religion, perhaps suggesting that morality remains independent of the same.
Morals undoubtedly figure in Andy’s thinking. During breakfast this morning, I noticed that he was checking out a 1980s comic book on an auction website. He explained that he was attracted to comics of that era due their downplaying of violence (he also pointed out the excellence of their artwork). Back then, the mission to do the right thing was at the centre of the narrative. I was reminded of my visit to Andy’s Māngere home and studio last week. While he made coffee, I poked around. Hanging on the walls were similar comics in protective sleeves featuring African-American as well as white heroes. There were also action figurines, Moana/Pacific sculptures, a poster of Muhammad Ali. I spied books by seminal writers of colour, such as Maya Angelou, and several editions of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the first book Andy read cover to cover. He noted, with a grin, that he’d imagined the upstanding Atticus Finch to be Samoan, like him.
I’m wary of making grand statements about precisely how real-world entities and environments relate to Andy’s invented situations. But perhaps it will suffice to observe that while these paintings are filled with specific references to the artist’s personal life and cultural background, they appeal to visitor-viewers from everywhere, inviting all of us to project ourselves on to them, as Andy projected on to Atticus Finch. As you roam round the artist’s worlds (there’s no itinerary; all pathways are equally valid), you will find that they include beings of all kinds, regardless of the number, placement, and shape of their body parts, and whether they travel by vaka or flying saucer.
‘Diaspora’ as a term is often tinged with pain, evoking the leaving of a homeland under pressure, rather than by pure choice, and consequent feelings of disconnection, unmooring. The works in this show do not necessarily negate these connotations. As I mentioned before, aspects of pathos can be detected. I for one cannot look at a painted panda without recalling the fragility of the natural world and the threat we humans pose. But there is also great optimism at play. Gazing at forms that dance between jellyfish and vaporous heads, I think of how much we still do not know about ourselves, our planet, and the immense cosmos to which we are all connected. Finding our place is a very great puzzle. So many pieces to try to fit together. So many tricky questions to answer. But there’s no need to wallow in a sense of futility, provided we are tolerant, operate in good faith, and have patience. Francis McWhannell.
Of Faith and Patience
Five days before the exhibition opens, the 12 works which make up A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience are hung in Bergman Gallery. It is the first time that artist Andy Leleisi’uao has seen them all laid out; the first time in many months that he has seen them at all. It is a return to old friends that are intensely familiar and yet seen through fresh eyes.
“They (the paintings) create their own energy,” he says, each work a part of his vision of the way the world could be, a world devoid of the barriers that divide humanity. Leleisi’uao points out his bulb heads iconography, black figures with white circular heads. “They have evolved without me, subconsciously, since then. It’s about looking inside oneself to find out what else can emerge,” he says, a journey where the bulb heads have gone on to float free and then form new bodies of their own.
The exhibition is also the first time that the 12 paintings have been shown together, all works which Leleisi’uao completed last year during his residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York City. As the winner of the 26th Annual Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award in 2017, Leleisi’uao spent four months in New York City for the ISCP residency. The residency programme provided him with time and space to paint, to meet and connect with artists and curators, to visit galleries and museums, and the opportunity to seek out for himself artists of Native American and African American descent.
A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience is influenced by New York City, inspired by the things Leleisi’uao saw every day around him: bike frames locked to lamp posts, a man on a pogo stick, and the people he observed while travelling from his apartment in Bed Stuy to ISCP in Brooklyn. “Every morning I’d catch the subway – it’s a place where people are just trying to make a dollar,” he says of the buskers, commuters and young kids selling snacks who journeyed alongside him each day.
Leleisi’uao’s studio space in New York City largely dictated the number of works in the series; there were three large blank walls which he filled with four canvases per wall, completing all 12 works in an intense five weeks of painting. The residency was a time to work hard and push himself as an artist, Leleisi’uao mentally preparing in the months prior, arriving with the specific intention of evolving his work from 2008 and 2010. When he painted he did so with a sense of freedom. Working on four or so canvases at a time, intuition led him, moving from one adjoining world to the next. “I love that liberty – it’s all about immediacy.”
“Over the course of his residency, Andy had shown me progress images of the works he had produced. I was very taken with them. From that point I was determined to see them at their point of origin,” says Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery.
It was not the first time Bergman and Leleisi’uao had been in New York City together, their initial visit an exploration and research trip in 2008. This was followed a year later by Leleisi’uao’s solo show Asefeka of the Unmalosa in Chelsea, a further group show, Manuia, in 2010, and the Volta Art Fair in 2011; in all cases Bergman and Leleisi’uao worked together. “Having represented Andy professionally for over a decade this new series of work came to mean a great deal to me as it signified the journey we had embarked on 10 years earlier that sought to link an unlikely modern art destination, Rarotonga, with the summit of pop contemporary art culture in New York,” says Bergman. “It became an affirmation of a platform that we both believe in, to elevate modern Pacific art to a global level.”
On opening night at Bergman Gallery in Rarotonga, Bergman details a sample of Leleisi’uao’s achievements – the 84 solo shows, 147 group shows, the many awards and residencies, and this show, the 20th they have produced together since the first in 2007, Scriptures from the West alongside Cook Islands artist Mahiriki Tangaroa.
“Bergman Gallery has had a huge part in supporting this series of works,” says Leleisi’uao. “It makes a lot of sense that they’re here in Rarotonga. My work belongs here in the Pacific, my works strength comes from location and relevance.”
Francis McWhannell, Curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection, shares his truth of Leleisi’uao’s work in his opening night address, a truth that resonates with all who hear it. “They possess great beauty and wit but are never about superficial prettiness or one liners. His paintings are dense with memorable detail. Spend even a short time looking at them and the figures, objects and scenes he has made lodge themselves in your mind’s eye. They will travel with you as you leave the gallery later tonight and move about the everyday world. Even after many views new details will emerge, sneak up on you. For this reason many visits are recommended.”
McWhannell speaks of how the paintings “point to two key and related concepts underpinning Andy’s work – the fundamental unity of human experience and the importance of acceptance.”
It is there in Leleisi’uao’s ever present and evolving distorted figures, his ‘aliens’ which he likens to jellyfish, creatures with no brains, hearts or skeletons which shouldn’t exist but do.
“They (the figures) are not deformities – just different,” Leleisi’uao says. “What matters is what’s inside – a diaspora of people – it’s all about trying to get along with each other.” Rachel Smith.
Over two decades, Andy’s CV has grown to now total 84 solo presentations and 147 group projects. During this time he has exhibited in Taipei, Rarotonga, Slovakia, Hungary, Australia, New York and throughout New Zealand. He has won awards and undertaken residencies. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Pataka Art + Museum; Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa; Auckland Art Gallery – Toi O Tāmaki; Chartwell Collection; New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; James Wallace Arts Trust; Auckland University; Canterbury University; Otago University; Manukau City; Pacific Business Trust; Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, and the Museum of Ethnography, Frankfurt.
Photos: Max White & Turama Photography.