In a regular home in a regular suburb of Nuku’alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Tongan artist and his Ngāti Pikiao/Chinese wife are using what they learned at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to transform lives.
Visesio Siasau and Serene Tay have been living in Haveluloto – where Visesio grew up – for six years, having made the decision to do what they can to help their community through the medium they know best. Both hold He Waka Hiringa – Master of Applied Indigenous Knowledge degrees, are talented artists in their own right and are using their art – and their lives – as an example to others.
Rather than live and practice their art anywhere else, they’re working with community groups and other interested locals in Tonga to develop their artistic skills. But in a country such as Tonga, that has its challenges. “Art is not well regarded here in Tonga,” Visesio says. “What we are pushing for is the acknowledgement and recognition of art and the significance of it.”Visesio – who became the first Tongan artist to win the prestigious Wallace Art Award in 2015 – says by sharing what he has learned, he may inspire others.
“I’m back here and working from the community because it’s very inspirational and I can inspire other artists and people here. I have to give back what I have learned from the outside world so I’m utilising that to educate my people. Maybe one artist or two can come along the path that I am taking.”
One day they hope to open a contemporary art gallery in Tonga. “There aren’t any galleries here in Tonga and to do that really would be an extension of us as artists and of what we’ve learned from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. That is to always aspire to do things greater than ourselves, to be challenged in that way.”
Their relationship with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa goes back to 2004, when Serene was a third year student and Visesio enrolled in an introductory art course. “I had seen the sculptures that he had made,” Serene says. “But it was more than just what he had created as a sculptor. It was the wairua of him. He is well and truly imbued with Tongan culture, Tongan philosophy but what really attracted me was that I knew that there was work to be done beyond us, and somehow I recognised that.
“For us, art is life. It is what we do, it’s who we are, it’s all embracing.” Much of what they do is based on aroha, or ofa in Tongan. Like the word aroha, the full meaning is lost in the English translation, Visesio says. “Ofa is a sense of love, in translation to English. Ofa is the essence of what we do as art practitioners. In translation, it is missing a lot of elements, it doesn’t grasp the depth of our language.”
Serene says ofa is similar to aroha. “Like aroha, it’s more than just one thing. When we use the word aroha – or ofa – were not simply saying we love you, we say we embrace you, not only you but those who’ve come before you and those who come after you, and that for me is what aroha is. “It’s bringing forward what our ancestors had planted, what our tupuna have given us and that’s an aroha discipline, to bring forward the intangible and transform it into a vessel of knowledge, a vessel of healing, a vessel of love.” That feeling of aroha, or ofa, flows through their art. “What makes good art for me, really what’s important is the mana of the art, the integrity, it’s got to be pono, that it’s honest and aroha, that it’s about the love,” Serene says.
Both say their studies at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa helped develop their sense of aroha and an understanding of themselves. Visesio says it provided the spark he needed. “When I went to the wānanga, I felt like ‘this is what I need’ because it fuelled what I wanted to do. When I came in to the wānanga, it’s what nurtured me to be stronger in what I was doing. It was like prepping myself and enhancing myself for what I’m doing now. It was the best learning environment for me. It suits who I am as Tongan, it’s strengthened my art creativity, it’s allowed me to be who I am and enhanced the way I think.”
Serene, who was a young solo mother of twins when she first enrolled with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, says it changed her life.“When you’re quite young and you become a mamma, you’re still trying to find yourself in the world and I think Te Wānanga o Aotearoa allowed me to realise that I do have a place in this world. It really gave me the opportunity to know that education is so valuable and it’s able to open doors to the world.”