A site-specific art history

An essay for the collaborative archival exhibition, Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa by Emily & Vea Mafile’o, 10 October – 21 November 2020, Vunilagi Vou 2.0.

Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa was programmed to be the first exhibition in Vunilagi Vou’s second site, Vunilagi Vou 2.0, after the impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic relocated the gallery from commercial premises in Ōtāhuhu to a suburban refurbished garage and garden in Papatoetoe, South Auckland. The exhibition responded to the forced pause that recalibrated our rhythms of life on a global scale.

For Papatoetoe-based artist and filmmaker, Vea Mafile’o, the initial crisis of Covid-19’s global impact hit during 32-date tour screening her debut feature film, For My Father’s Kingdom (2019) in the United States. When Aotearoa’s borders were about to close, she returned to South Auckland with her crew having only delivered two of the 32 scheduled events.

The comedown was hard. Like so many creative entrepreneurs, international border closures and the panic of an unknown future resulted in cancelled gigs, tours and exhibitions. Whilst the financial impact was felt immediately, the change in pace from enforced quarantine and lockdown protocols, inspired reflection, and despair, and in many cases new universes of innovation.

Returning from the high energies of introducing the deeply personal documentary film about her family’s lived experience of Tongan-Pākehā biculturalism in Aotearoa, Vea returned to her regular life as mother to three boys aged 12, seven and three in suburban South Auckland. For those parenting through the pandemic, and those managing a collapsed creative economy, the scope for innovation, and windows of opportunity for personal pursuits, were drastically minimised.

The invitation to develop a new exhibition for Vunilagi Vou’s re-opening after a six-month hiatus, was in part a lifeline from one mother to another. The project of re-opening the gallery and the challenge of making a new body of gallery-based work gave both curator and artist a focus during Aotearoa’s lengthy enforced lockdowns. The new site for Vunilagi Vou and its almost 20-year Moana Oceania art history of hosting artists and making, photoshoots, gatherings and tattooing, became the grounding kaupapa for Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa.

Vea secured an Arts Continuity Grant from Creative New Zealand and started to digitise her video archives dating back to 2003. Chronologically, her personal archive was made up of early experimentation with the medium of Moving Image produced whilst studying at Manukau School of Visual Arts[1], documentation of her broader practice making video installations, and elements of stories and travels whilst working in television after art school. In this expanded timeline of video production that preceded the making of her first feature film, the presence of famili, and in particular Vea’s elder sister, photographer Emily Mafile’o, was/is a constant.

In the title of the exhibition, Vea refers to koloa, a Tongan term for “different types of cultural materials that are either traditional or non-traditional”[2]. In this instance, Vea’s koloa are her digital archives, stories of her famili and their worlds between Tonga and Aotearoa. Like traditional koloa – tapa cloth, fine mats and adornment – there is a need for these histories, held in material and stories, to be ‘unfolded’ and aired-out every now and then, when the climate is right, to re-embed their emotional footprint and reflect on the value held in the spaces between people, localities, land and custom.

Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa consisted of four works; three videos and a photographic installation by Emily Mafile’o. Vea and Emily attended MSVA at the same time, relocating from Hamilton to Ōtara, South Auckland in 2002. Much of Emily’s work produced during this time established key visual storytelling approaches that she has continued to hone over two decades of practice. Her portraiture has always paid homage to American photographer Nan Goldin’s documentary style, capturing intimate insights from the closeness of being immersed in trusted time and space with her subjects.

The early 2000s (2002-2006) was an installation of Emily’s work presented in her signature style of low-cost large format prints applied as wallpaper, repeating, slightly roughed up by the process of being touched, glued, patted down, adjusted. Two portraits were notably made in the garden of Vunilagi Vou 2.0, next to the old rotary clothesline. Printed at A0 scale, the portraits were positioned at either end of the installation’s full wall coverage framing the gallery’s garden-facing window. In the photographs Emily chose to present, sister Vea is ever-present, whilst Emily herself is almost entirely absent.

Produced largely in black and white film, this pre-digital archive of the Mafile’o siblings, extended famili, homes, friends and environments, was a hearty historical flashback. Gently lo-fi, high contrast, inky and rough, the install was a unique manifestation of memory; a single-use, time-based visual reminiscence, that would eventually be removed through laborious full destruction of every single print.

Install view

Camouflaged against photographic prints, a wall-mounted monitor screened a short video produced by Vea and I during our second year of art school. Entitled, Emily Mafile’o, Documentary Photographer (2003), the work fulfilled an assignment to produce an artist profile and features footage of Emily behind the camera, at home with her then young son, and cutaways of many of the photographs included in the installation. It is an early flex of both Vea and I, who have gone on to produce numerous artist profiles for arts promotion and television. It is also a rare opportunity to see Emily as part of her work, exposing the proximity of her shared time and space with those she chooses to photograph.

Facing Emily’s work, Vea’s video installation, Flower Mat (2020) featured a video of the artist’s early experiments with sculptural installation, video and performance, centralising the ‘flower mat’, a length of chicken wire adorned with artificial flowers and foliage. The video is an assemblage of the artist’s developing ideas from 2003-2005; a rough cut series of video drawings. The over two-hour long video is the raw processing and development of a screen-based practice, showing Vea exploring the representation of herself, contexts, localities and the politics of place and positionality.

The video played on a monitor presented on a structure made from a long timber box (recycled from Vunilagi Vou’s original site) placed as a bridge atop of two conventional white plinths. The structure made a loose and somewhat convenient reference to the iconic Tongan stone trilithon, Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, which also features in the video. Draped over one end of the plinth was the actual ‘flower mat’, now a slightly battered sculptural archive, but whose vibrant hues, two decades later, represent a chilling testament to the endurance of petroleum plastics.

Install view

In the days before the frequent use of data projectors as part of video installation’s vocabulary, presenting work on televisions became a sculptural act. Flower Mat (2020) as an installation gave a nod to the space of experimentation that MSVA provided. In what was a fairly isolated renovated former factory in Ōtara, making installations, and artwork, would often be a matter of foraging for whatever was around.

On the back wall of the gallery, Vea’s video work made specifically for Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa was projected directly on to the plywood wall. Fofola Koloa (duration 13:17) was made as a video drawing, a rough patchwork of archival footage that dated back to 2004. It quietly tracked the artist’s practice from self-portraiture and object-making to collective storytelling, her transition into television-making and the continuum of famili and Tonga.

The work begins with a close-up cropped frame of the artist’s face, repeated multiple times panning slowly and zooming into her left eye; the footage, rendered in red, warm tones like a bodily, blood-glow, is one of the few times the camera is turned on herself. The mosaiced frames are quickly replaced with repeated images of family members, shot in intimate close-range of shared time and space, captured in the blueish green tones of aged VHS home video.

The soundtrack at the beginning of the work is the introduction of Groove Armada 1997 track, At the River, a sound synonymous with 90s chill and ambient house. From these earliest archives in the artist’s collection, her time and space is defined by famili, from playful footage of her young nephew with his long blond curls, her father’s cheeky wink, home views, still portraits, bedrooms and Bob Marley, landscape vistas and road trips, paintings and textures, sunsets and the ocean.

The Groove Armada track shifts from ambient horns and synthesiser drums to a sample of Old Cape Cod (1957) by recording artist, Patti Page, repeating the line, If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air / Quaint little villages here and there. The video quality shifts from hazy mini-DV to crisp digital sharpness, significantly visible in three juxtaposed frames of rolling tides, holding the light of a setting sun over the Pacific ocean. The water is mesmerising as continuously rolling bodies of liquid, moving at different speeds and in different directions, a part of the work complemented effortlessly by the grain of the plywood wall it is projected on, like a beautiful interdimensional collaboration of nature, light and pixels.

This natural intermission breaks the soundscape of the work shifting from Groove Armada to the quiet chatter of women processing pandanus leaves in the evening light, whilst standing waist-deep in the sea. The work then switches back to a moving mosaic of footage and atmospheric sounds, including a short excerpt from an interview with renowned Tongan philosopher, Hūfanga-He-Ako-Moe-Lotu Dr ‘Okusitino Māhina, discussing the relationship between art and the Tā-Vā theory of relativity. Juxtaposed is the reoccurring ‘flower mat’ object, represented in footage filmed during Vea’s undergraduate studies, and symbolic of the artist’s exploration of her defining contexts and landscapes.

A slow high-angle pan shows the artist’s young nephew seated cross-legged, holding his mother’s hand whilst her spine is tattooed with hand tools. Emily’s fair skin is stretched, marked and wiped as she lies with her eyes closed, in the moment her permanent connection to a Tongan visual vocabulary, is added to her embodied identity. Like Emily’s work, Vea offers windows into intimate time-space shared with loved ones, taking each other’s experiences on as a collective expression of identity and kinship.

The work progresses to include footage used in Vea’s installation series Digital Kava Circles (2006-7), the first of which, Who Will Douse The Kingdom (2006), was produced as graduating work from her Post-Graduate Diploma of Fine Arts. Having started to work professionally in the field of television after art school, the content from this era of Vea’s archives has a distinctly more polished feel.

Here the patch-worked content of Fofola Koloa moves from interviews with Tongans about diaspora, identity and cultural change, car rides and Bob Marley, discussion of the riots that took place in Nuku’alofa on 16 November, 2006, and the protests for democracy and political reform. The high definition footage of the coronation of King Tupou IV in Nuku’alofa in 2015 reflects a position of media privilege, and an acoustic guitar rendition of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters (1992) played by a young Tongan man, named Gerhardt Sanft, wearing sunglasses sitting on a roof top in Nuku’alofa, reflects the artist’s ongoing commentary on Tonga’s push and pull with the tides of globalisation.

Of the three video works shown in the exhibition, the soundtrack of Fofola Koloa filled the gallery with a watery, nostalgic patchwork soundscape. As a composite of different parts of different stories, and with three video works playing concurrently, the dominant soundscape was not immediately identifiable as belonging to Fofola Koloa. Visitors would slowly sync sound with images from the projected video, the intensity of which shifted as the light changed in the gallery, adding a ghostly ephemerality to the work.

Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa was an incredibly meaningful project to deliver to open Vunilagi Vou 2.0. My relationship with artists Vea and Emily Mafile’o was established as a fast friendship at MSVA in 2002. Our youthful experiences of mixedness, of having Pākehā mothers, and of being artists whose creative languages gave voice to quiet internalised tensions, felt like home. We were all new to South Auckland, and its direct connectedness to the Pacific; our burgeoning art careers were being fuelled by the energy of this place.

Our friendship suffered a huge blow in 2003 and for almost a decade, we didn’t speak. We all carried the scar tissue, and worked in adjacent worlds. Personal grievances of artists and curators aren’t often disclosed or necessarily known. In public spaces, we probably should detach our sentimental needs, and truths. Vunilagi Vou 2.0 wasn’t public space. To heal the hurt that created such heavy scar tissue, the gallery demanded an exhibition that would force reflection and hold space for a necessary talanoa.

The artist talk we held in the gallery on 30 October 2020 was healing and cathartic. Vea and Emily’s koloa carries mana, loyalty and love; their famili was all around them as we confronted our vulnerabilities and moved forward with what Hūfanga-He-Ako-Moe-Lotu Dr ‘Okusitino Māhina would term, harmonious criticality.

Talanoa at Vunilagi Vou 2.0, October 2020

Upon reflection, Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa (2020)was a necessary project, birthed from crisis, that came about intentionally and site-specifically to facilitate a shift. Producing exhibitions for Vunilagi Vou 2.0 stripped back so much about the curatorial position and its politics; making shows had to speak to a truth that public galleries could always avoid. Through our practices as artists, we found a middle ground; Vunilagi Vou 2.0, although short-lived, demanded a re-centring of the ‘why’ behind this work and in the building of safe space, offered the best climate and conditions for growth.

Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa opening, 10 October 2020

A note of gratitude Vinaka vakalevu to Leilani Kake, who not only lead the install of Fofola Koloa – Unfolding my Koloa, but supported the emotional and socio-relational weight of this exhibition.

[1] Formerly part of Manukau Institute of Technology delivering the University of Auckland’s now defunct Bachelor of Visual Arts programme.

[2] ‘Ākolo, M.K. (2017), A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Work in Koloa in the Tongan Community, Master’s thesis, The Faculty of Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, USA. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1051&context=etd