Tongan Artist Wins Residency At New York Program

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Sept. 14, 2015) – Tongan artist Visesio Siasau is off to New York with his family for a six-months residency after being named Paramount Award Winner for his huge tapa work in the 24th Annual Wallace Art Awards in New Zealand.

Visesio, known as Sio, accompanied by his wife Serene Tay a painter of Chinese-Maori descent and daughter Sei, was named winner at Pah Homestead last week, with a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program.

Formally titled Onotu’ofe’uli-Onotu’ofekula it translates to strands of colour inextricably connected to the qualities of kula (red colour/light) and ‘uli (black colour).

The couple worked on the project together last year in Tonga. The tapa cloth, which measures 4.4m by 18m, was so heavy it had to be cut in half at the airport in Tonga to make it on the plane to Auckland in November last year. Then it had to be repasted together.

The work features 23 different stencil designs, which are doubled up and repeated on a black background. The stencils are Sio’s sophisticated interpretations of the powerful role of the Christian church in Tonga, within the historical context of the symbols of traditional Tongan life, a relationship which has created tension throughout the Pacific region.

Sio said tension is a good thing, it enables a dynamic of creativity and a dynamic therapy. These are huge subjects to discuss, the representation of a complexity of knowledge, he said.

The project worked on two levels with Sio creating the stencils and Serene working with a collective of women in Tonga to make the tapa.

Serene said they had thousands of layers of tapa sheet; the bark comes from mulberry which is beaten down to sheets.

“We had a long table with a line of people on both sides glueing with tapioca and they had to work very fast, pasting it and rolling and then we to two layers,” she said.

“If you leave it too long, it gets hard and you can’t do it. You have to go bang bang for the first 12 hours. You can’t go eat…it can rip and tear as the humidity in Tonga makes it dry very fast and you need to get stencils on,” she told the NZ Herald.


Sio who first worked as an electrician in the Tongan Navy moved to New Zealand to help his parents pay for his three younger brothers school fees.

“In Tonga you are always pushed by your parents to get an education and get a good job after that but art was always around me,” he said.

He stayed in Otara with his uncle who is a carver, and saw the work and thought he could do that.

“While I was learning, I realized there were some aspects of carving I wanted to explore and that is when I started looking at books. I have been living in NZ for 20-years and I go home a lot and try to make them see the importance of art because it is within them all. What we do is carving the brain, when you look at something, it starts to ignite some kind of thinking.”

Sio said to expect plenty of ignition happening in the Siasau family during their six-months in New York.

“It’s giving us the opportunity to look and also to create. It will take the work to a higher level.”

The residency is held at the International Studio and Curatorial Program.

The Annual Wallace Art Awards is held to support and promote New Zealand’s contemporary art and artists.

Matangi Tonga Magazine
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