Names held in our mouths

8 June – 18 August 2019


Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery

The past is alive in us, so in more than a metaphorical sense the dead are alive - we are our history

Epeli Hau’ofa

Cultural knowledge, within Māori and Moana communities, is often passed on through familial lines, both orally or embodied in particular practices and ceremonies. As with any knowledges, these practices are always in flux, responsive to shifting conditions. Colonisation, capitalism and migration have had a particular impact on how practices are continued. Some fall out of use; others adapt to new materials; still others continue on, fuelled by social functions and significance.

The exhibition names held in our mouths considers the structures and pathways six artists and collectives employ to revive or sustain their art, with a particular focus on dormant or at-risk practices. Working primarily outside of formal institutions, these modes of revival and transmission, which range from transnational exchanges, museum studies, and close reading of texts, often depend upon and result in a collective impulse. They also expose a number of oscillating concerns, such as the twin needs of protectionism and open sharing; revival and adaptation; local and global influences. It is often cited in Tongan and Māori language, that we walk backwards into the future. As artists consider what to safeguard for the posterity, we can conceive of the present as a moment pregnant with the past, both informed by and activity constructing our future histories.

Sosefina Andy, Nikau Hindin, Louisa Humphry, Wikuki Kingi, Pacifica Mamas, Kaetaeta Watson, The Veiqia Project.
Curated by Ioana Gordon-Smith.

The Veiqia Project

Margaret Aull (Lautoka), Donita Hulme (Nadroga), Joana Monolagi (Serua), Dulcie Stewart (Bua), Luisa Tora (Kadavu), Tarisi Vunidilo (Kadavu).

Photo by Sam Hartnett. Image courtesy of Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.

The Veiqia Project is a collective of Fijian artists, curators and researchers across Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Hawai’i who are inspired by the practice of Fijian female tattooing. Veiqia—in which both daubati (tattooist) and recipients are women—literally marks transition into womanhood. While Christian prohibitions endangered the practice, The Veiqia Project have studied museum collections, scoured ships’ logs and shared talanoa with women of all ages to regenerate conversations about the practice within iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) communities. This process of recovering, collating, creating and sharing is central to the collective, and is the focus of their work commissioned for Te Uru.  

In the centre of the gallery sits Rai Lesu, an artistic model of a bure kalou; a Fijian spirit house and site of guidance. Working in a master-apprentice relationship, Joana Monolagi guides Luisa Tora through the techniques of weaving cane and magimagi while acknowledging their respective tribal affiliations; Monolagi as a bete (priests, advisers) and Tora as a mataisau (artisans, builders). Rai Lesu translates loosely into English as ‘to look back’. Here, it supports Monolagi and Tora’s intergenerational relationship as a mode of knowledge transmission with a long history, extending beyond the living into the ancestral realm. 

Around the walls is a frieze of 19th century landscape images, paintings of Matakau (material representations of ancestors) and weniqia patterns worn and chosen by The Veiqia Project members. The selection layers formal and informal archives. It also binds the past and present in a loop. Just as contemporary practice revives knowledge, so too does research ignite contemporary practice. As Dulcie Stewart and Donita Hulme notes, “weniqia are appearing again on Fijian women’s skin, and the words are returning to our mouths”.